Rhode Island FAQs

What fees are associated with requesting public documents?

The fee per page shall not exceed 15 cents per page for documents that can be copied on standard business or legal size paper.

The hourly costs for the search and retrieval of documents shall not cost more than $15 per hour. No costs are incurred for the first hour.

Citizens are entitled to an estimate of the copying and retrieval costs prior to providing the records.

A public body may not charge more than the reasonable actual cost for providing electronic records.

What do I do if I can’t afford the fees for a public record?

Typically, you should be prepared to pay a fee for the copying of documents or for the time spent searching for and retrieving a document. However, a court may compel a public agency to waive fees (or a public agency may choose to do so) if the information requested is in the public interest, and is not in the commercial interest of the requester. “In the public interest” is defined as information that is “likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.”

What public documents are exempt from Rhode Island’s public access law?

Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Law includes more than 20 exemptions. Below are some examples. To view all of them, click here.

Exemptions include:

  • All records relating to client/attorney and doctor/patient relationshipsAny records of an individual that relate to personal finances, welfare, employment security, student performance, or information in personnel files maintained to hire, evaluate, promote, or discipline any employee of a public body.
  • Trade secrets and privileged/confidential commercial or financial information
  • Child custody and adoption records
  • Juvenile court proceedings
  • Certain records maintained by law enforcement agencies used for the investigation or detection of crime
  • Tax returns
  • Library records that would reveal the identity of the person checking out or using library materials

Can I be denied a public record based on why I want the record?

Access to a record is not conditional on who you are or why you are requesting the record.

Any person or entity requesting copies of public records may elect to obtain them in any and all media in which the public agency is capable of providing them.

A citizen is not permitted to use information obtained from a public record for commercial advantages. If this provision is violated, a citizen may face a fine of no more than $500 and/or a prison term of no longer than one year.

What is the definition of a public record?

Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Law defines a public record as any document (e.g. papers, letters, e-mail, maps, books, sound recordings) or any other material related to official business by any public agency or private agency acting on behalf or in place of a public agency.

Certain information relating to public employees is also considered public, including the name, gross salary, total cost of paid fringe benefits, gross amount received in overtime and pension records. Also considered public are the dates of employment, positions held with the state or municipality, the city or town of residence and date of termination.

To view records exempt from public disclosure, click here.

Which government branches are exempted from the public access law? Which ones are included?

  • Legislative branch
    Not exempt
  • Executive branch
    Not exempt
  • Judicial branch
    The state judicial branch is included under the act, but only with respect to its administrative functions.
  • A person or agency acting on behalf of any public agency is also subject to the act.

What public records are available online?

The Rhode Island Office of the Secretary of State provides online access to certain public records including:

What can I do if a public agency refuses to release a document?
In any action relating to the state’s public access laws, the burden of proof lies with the public body to demonstrate that the record in dispute should not be disclosed to the public.

If a public agency refuses to grant permission to inspect or copy a record, the agency is required to provide in writing the specific reasons for denying the request within 10 business days. Any reason not listed will be considered waived unless the agency can provide good cause for the omissions.

The written notice must also explain the procedure for appealing.

The Appeals Process
If a public official denies a public record request, you may petition the chief administrative officer of the public body who possesses the record.

The chief administrative officer has 10 business days from the submission of the review petition to determine whether the refusal to release the document was appropriate.

If the chief administrative officer agrees that the document should not be released, your next option is to file a complaint with Rhode Island’s attorney general, whose office will investigate the complaint.

Every year Rhode Island’s attorney general prepares a report that compiles all of the complaints received over the course of the year regarding access to public records. The report also includes information on how many of the complaints were valid, and the action taken by the attorney general in response to those complaints. The attorney general’s office submits the report to the legislature.

Appealing to the Courts
The state’s superior court has jurisdiction to hear and decide civil actions brought by a complainant who is seeking access to public documents. The court will examine, in chambers, the document(s) in question to determine whether it should be made available for public review.

If the court finds that the public body or official knowingly or willingly committed a violation of the public access law, the body or official will face a civil fine of no more than $1,000. If the complainant prevails, the public agency will provide the records at not cost. The agency will also reimburse the complainant for reasonable attorney fees and costs.

If the court finds in favor of the public agency and that the plaintiff’s case lacked a grounding in fact, in existing law, or that the plaintiff did not make a good faith argument for the amending of the existing law, the plaintiff may be responsible for the public agency’s attorney fees and costs to the agency.

What meetings held by public agencies may be declared closed?
Below are exemptions to Rhode Island’s access to public meetings law.

To declare a meeting closed, the majority of the members of a public body must vote in favor of closing it to the public, and may only do so for one of the following reasons:

Discussions of the job performance, character, or the physical or mental health of a person

Sessions that pertain to collective bargaining or litigation

Discussions on matters of security such as the deployment of security personnel or devices

Investigative proceedings on allegations of misconduct

discussions related to the acquisition or lease of property for public purposes or of the disposition of publicly held property if advanced public knowledge would be detrimental to the interest of the public

Any discussions related to a prospective business or industry to be located in Rhode Island if advanced public knowledge would be detrimental to the interest of the public

Discussions related to the investment of public funds where the premature disclosure would adversely affect the public interest

Executive sessions of a local school committee under the following circumstances: student disciplinary hearings; matters that relate to the privacy of students and their records

Any hearings/discussions related to a grievance filed pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement

Any discussion of the personal finances of a prospective donor to a library
A meeting may also be closed if it involves judicial proceedings or because of disruptive conduct.

During a closed session, what can be discussed, and what must be made public?

In the interest of the public, the following rules must be adhered to during executive sessions:

  • A record, to be included in the minutes of the meeting, must be created that delineates the reason for the closed meeting, each member’s vote on closing the meeting and the nature of the business that was discussed
  • During the closed meeting, members may not discuss any matters considered public under the state’s open meeting law. They may only discuss the issue(s) listed as the reason to close the meeting.
  • The votes taken during the closed session must be disclosed once the session is reopened, with exception. Disclosure may be postponed if doing so would jeopardize an ongoing negotiation or investigation.