Texas Freedom of Information Act
What is the Texas Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act is a federal act that establishes the right of United States citizens to copy or inspect any public record created or owned by federal agencies. In order to replicate the transparency shown by the federal FOIA, each state in the United States enacted an adaption of the FOIA. In Texas, the public record law is the Public Information Act (PIA).
Under the PIA, Texas citizens have the right to access and copy government records. Additionally, it specifies that governmental bodies may withhold public documents in certain circumstances. In general, the PIA compels a government entity to respond to information requests. However, if a governmental agency concludes that the information is exempt from disclosure under the PIA, the Open Records Division (ORD) must consider both the request and the requested material. The ORD will decide whether the governmental entity may withhold the requested information or provide it to the requester.
The PIA requires governmental bodies to treat all requests equally. The Act grants the following rights to requesters:
- Prompt access to non-confidential or otherwise protected information
- Receive a written itemized statement of expected costs, when fees exceed $40, in advance of fulfilling the PIA request, and the ability to modify the request in response to the itemized information
- Select whether to inspect the requested record, obtain copies of the record, or both
- A fee waiver or reduction in charges if the governmental entity considers that access to the information is in the public's interest
- Receive a copy of the correspondence from the governmental entity requesting a decision from the Office of the Attorney General on whether a requested public record may be withheld under one of the recognized exceptions or a redacted copy, if the communication discloses the requested information.
- Complain in writing to the Attorney General's Office regarding inflated fees for public records.
The Texas PIA was initially known as the Texas Open Records Act and was approved by the state legislature in 1973. The statutes of the PIA are codified in Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code. The PIA is the basis of the government's policy for open government in the state. The Act aims to keep the government accountable to its people and improve the public's participation in government.
What is Covered Under the Texas Freedom of Information Act?
The public records of virtually all state and local government bodies and many quasi-government bodies are covered under the Texas Public Information Act. These records may be stored in a book, letter, document, paper, printout, photograph, tape, film, microfiche, microfilm, photostat, map, sound recording, drawing, voice, data, or video representation held in computer memory. Public records must be information that is written, produced, collected, assembled, or maintained under an ordinance or law or in connection with the transaction of official business:
- By a governmental agency or body
- For a governmental body and the body owns the information, has a right to it, or spends or contributes public money for writing, producing, collecting, or maintaining the information.
- By an individual employee or officer of a governmental body in the employee's official capacity
Any information or record collected or maintained outside the official transaction of an agency's official business may not be considered a public record or public information.
A governmental body is broadly defined under the Texas PIA to include:
- A board, department, committee, commission, institution, agency, or office that is either part of or constituted by the administrative or legislative branches of state government and is led by one or more elected or appointed members
- A county commissioners court
- A municipal governing body
- A deliberative body with a rulemaking or quasi-judicial authority that is categorized as a county or municipality's department, agency, or political subdivision
- A board of trustees for any school district
- A board of trustees for any school
- A county board of education
- A special district's governing body
- The controlling body of a nonprofit organization created under Chapter 67, Water Code that provides water supply or wastewater service, or both, and is exempt from ad valorem taxes pursuant to Tax Code section 11.30
- A board of local workforce development established according to Section 2308.253 of the Texas Government Code
- A nonprofit organization qualified to receive funds under the federal community services block grant program and approved by this state to serve a geographical region within the state.
- The division, sector, or part of an organization, company, commission, committee, institution, or agency that spends or receives public funds in whole or in part.
Quasi-governmental bodies as covered under the Texas PIA refers to governmental entities that:
- The authority to exercise judgment and discretion
- The authority to hear and determine or to ascertain facts and decide
- The authority to issue binding orders and judgments
- The authority to affect the personal or property rights of private individuals
- The authority to examine witnesses, compel witnesses' attendance, and hear the litigation of issues on a hearing
- The authority to enforce decisions or impose penalties.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Texas?
Statutory exemptions from public disclosure apply to the following categories of records in Texas:
- Confidential information as defined by law under Texas Government Code Section 552.101
- Confidential information included in educational records under Texas Government Code Section 552.026
- Information contained in personnel files that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy under Texas Government Code Section 552.102
- Litigation or settlement negotiations involving a governmental body pursuant to Texas Government Code 552.103
- Information that would provide a competitor or bidder with an advantage pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.104
- The location or cost of a property to be used for a public purpose prior to a public announcement or formal award of contracts
- Certain documents relating to the preparation of proposed legislation
- Records pertaining to attorney-client privilege information
- Certain law enforcement and prosecutorial information under Texas Government Code Section 552.107
- Certain private communications of elected officials under Texas Government Code Section 552.109
- Certain agency memos pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.111
- Trade secrets
- A financial institution or securities’ regulatory information
- Geological or geophysical information under Texas Government Code Section 552.113
- Student data from public educational institutions pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.114
- Birth and death records pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.115
- Audit working documents under Texas Government Code Section 552.116
- Personal information about government personnel pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.117
- Photographs of peace officers or security guards whose disclosure would jeopardize the officer's life or security
- Certain rare books and original manuscripts under Texas Government Code Section 552.120
- Certain historical materials under Texas Government Code Section 552.121
- Test or examination items under Section 552.122 of the Texas Government Code
- The name of a candidate for the position of chief executive officer of an institution of higher education
- Identity of a private contributor to a higher education institution
- Library records under Texas Government Code Section 552.124
- Certain audits under Texas Government Code Section 552.125
- The name of an applicant for the superintendent position of a public school district
- Personal information about participants in a neighborhood crime watch organization
- Certain information submitted by a prospective vendor or contractor under Texas Government Code Section 552.128
- Motor vehicle inspection records
- Economic development information under Texas Government Code Section 552.131
- Crime victim information
- Crime victim impact statements
- Competitive matters pertaining to public power utilities under Texas Government Code Section 552.133
- Certain information pertaining to a prisoner under Texas Government Code Section 552.134
- Credit card, debit card, charge card, and access device numbers
- Specific e-mail addresses pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.137
- Information about family violence shelter centers and sexual assault programs
- Information about computer security issues pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 552.139
- Military discharge records
- Application records for marriage licenses
- Texas No-Call list
How Do I File a Texas Freedom of Information Act Request?
In accordance with Section 552.234 of the Texas Government Code, requesters for public records may only file requests to the public information officer (PIO) of a governmental body or the officer's designee by any of the following methods:
- U.S. mail
- Hand delivery
- Any other means approved by the governmental body, such as by fax or an online request portal
For more information about other specific methods approved for filing PIA requests by a governmental body, check the governmental body's website. You may find standard PIA request forms online for use.
Per Section 552.223 of the Texas Government Code, the PIO must treat all requests for public records uniformly regardless of the requester's position or employment, the person on whose behalf the request is made, or the individual's status as a member of the media.
The following are examples of making PIA requests in Texas:
- The Texas Department of Transportation: PIA requests to the TXDOT must be made in writing. The Department does not consider telephone requests for public records. Requesters are advised to include their names, contact information, and clear descriptions of the records they want to inspect or copy. Requests may be completed using the online Open Records and Management and Tracking System or through TxDOT_ORR@txdot.gov. You can also mail or deliver requests to the TxDOT office at 125 E. 11th Street, Austin, TX 78701.
- The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles: To file PIA requests with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, submit the written request through one of these methods:
- Public Access Link (PAL): This is the quickest and most convenient means to submit a DMV PIA request in Texas. Use the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Public Access Link to complete the request
By Email: OGCOpenRecords@TxDMV.gov
In-Person: Attn: Open Records
Office of General Counsel
Texas Department of Motor Vehicles
4000 Jackson Avenue, Building 1
Austin, Texas 78731
By Mail: Open Records
Office of General Counsel
Texas Department of Motor Vehicles
4000 Jackson Avenue
Austin, TX 78731
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Texas?
Section 70 of the Texas Administrative Code specifies when and how much a requester may be charged for copies of public records. If you are only inspecting the records, there are typically no fees to be paid unless the record requires many hours of preparation and fills several boxes. You may be charged $0.10 per page if you request paper copies of the records. If your request exceeds 50 pages or the records are stored in different or remote storage facilities, you may be charged up to $15 per hour for search expenses. Additionally, you may be charged labor expenses if the records contain confidential information that must be redacted.
If the cost for a PIA request will result in charges exceeding $40, the governmental body may send the requester an estimate before starting any work on the request. Failure on the requester's part to respond to the written fee estimate within 10 days will lead to an automatic withdrawal of the request. If the request tops $100, the governmental body may require a deposit, prepayment, or bond.
Requesters may be able to obtain partial or complete fee waivers if the record custodian determines that the waiver is in the public interest, that is, providing the copy of the record primarily benefits the general public. Additionally, Section 552.267 of the Texas Government Code provides a waiver of copying expenses if the cost to a governmental entity of processing and collecting a charge for a copy of public material exceeds the charge itself.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Texas?
Pursuant to Section 552.228 of the Texas Government Code, a governmental body is required to reply to a PIA request within a reasonable amount of time. If the agency holds that the record is exempt from disclosure, it is required to notify the requester within 10 days. If it does not, the record is deemed public and must be made available. Note that this statute applies only to pre-existing records. Public record custodians are not required by law to create a record in response to your request.
If a governmental body denies a PIA request or requests an attorney general ruling within 10 business days, a requester may file a written complaint with the Office of the Attorney General's Open Records Division. You may contact the ORD by calling (512) 478-6736 or toll-free at (877) 673-6839. Also, you may file complaints against governmental bodies that violate an attorney general's decision.
If the attorney general finds that a record is not subject to disclosure, but you disagree, you may seek judicial review of the attorney general's judgment in a district court. Per Section 552.321 of the Texas Government Code, the lawsuit must be filed in the district court in the county where the governmental body's main office is located. Alternatively, you may file the suit with the county attorney's office.