NEFAC: Rhode Island Public Records Bill Includes Overdue, Common Sense Reforms

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 |


The New England First Amendment Coalition testified today in support of a Rhode Island bill that would strengthen the state’s public records law by making long-overdue common sense improvements.

“The Access to Public Records Act has not been significantly reformed in more than a decade,” NEFAC wrote in March 28 comments to the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee. “During that time, there have been many changes in technology and in public sensibilities about transparency needs, particularly those within law enforcement.”

Senate Bill No. 2256 would make changes to the public records law that include:

• Better access to police records.
• Increased fines against government agencies for non-compliance.
• Less restrictions on the release of 911 audio.
• Increased access to communication between government officials.
• More timely release of police-worn body camera footage.

The bill will also require fees for records in the public interest to be waived, a welcome change given the difficulty obtaining information about the now-closed Washington Bridge, NEFAC explained.

Despite remaining questions about how the bridge fell into disrepair and why it ultimately closed, Gov. Daniel McKee recently charged two newsrooms thousands of dollars for records that date back to July 2023 when the bridge last passed inspection. The Attorney General’s Office said that while the charges are legal, they can also be waived by the governor.

“S.2256 would require those fees be waived and make it easier for the public to understand what caused one of the biggest travel headaches in the state’s history,” NEFAC wrote. “These improvements to APRA will result in more transparency and accountability. The changes will also bring Rhode Island further in line with other states that already offer much of what S.2256 provides.”

In its testimony, NEFAC focused on the improved access to 911 audio and police body camera footage S.2256 would require. Currently, access to 911 audio is released only with permission from those heard on the call. This can be problematic for those calling 911 but with other individuals speaking in the background. The law can also prevent individuals from obtaining the audio of calls made on behalf of deceased family members.

“The changes proposed by S.2256 strike an appropriate balance between providing access to the audio of 911 calls and protecting the privacy of those needing such calls to be made,” NEFAC explained. “This framework is an effective, yet considerate, way to protect individual privacy while also allowing sufficient transparency within our state’s call centers.”

Regarding body cameras, NEFAC wrote that the policies issued by the Office of the Attorney General allow for footage of use-of-force incidents to be unreasonably delayed or to be released only with exorbitant fees incurred by the public. S.2256 would require footage of any use-of-force incident to be publicly released within 30 days, a standard necessary for the public to benefit from the technology, the coalition explained.

“Since concern over police brutality and use-of-force policies recaptured the nation’s attention in 2020, communities across the country have demanded more transparency within their law enforcement agencies,” NEFAC wrote. “The use of body cameras can be an effective way to both protect citizens from unreasonable uses of force and to discourage false allegations of misconduct against officers.”

NEFAC is the region’s leading advocate for the First Amendment and the public’s right to know about government. The coalition regularly testifies about legislation involving First Amendment freedoms and the public’s right to know. All coalition briefs, letters and statements can be found here.

Want to learn more about Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act? Check out NEFAC’s multimedia FOI Guide for video tutorials, interviews with journalists and legal experts, legislation trackers and more.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Leadership Circle donors include the Rhode Island Foundation, Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Boston University, the Academy of New England Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, Genie Gannett for the First Amendment Museum, Linda Pizzuti Henry, the Champa Charitable Foundation Fund, Connecticut Public and GBH-Boston.