By Scott Medlock
Staff Attorney, Texas Civil Rights Project
In Texas, there are two laws that make most government documents available to citizens. The Texas Public Information Act (PIA) requires state and local governments to make information public. The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires the federal government to do the same thing. Citizens do not need lawyers to use these laws. The PIA and FOIA make information public, but there are some exceptions.
You can request documents or information from any government agency, like school districts, police departments, cities, or counties. The PIA request, however, can only be used for Texas state government. To request information from the federal government, use the FOIA request.
The government is not required to release some information. For example, a school district can only release information about a child to the child’s parent. The police cannot release information about ongoing investigations. If someone has threatened to sue the government, the government may withhold information until the lawsuit is over. The federal government may withhold information related to national security.
Send a letter describing what your want to the agency’s public information officer to request information. Check the agency’s website to find who the information office is, or call the agency to ask. Make sure to get the fax number. If you cannot find the name of the officer, send the request to the head of the agency (for example, the County Sheriff). You can use the appropriate letter (see links below) as a model. Fill in the correct addresses and the information you want.
State and local governments must respond to your PIA request in 10 business days. (The federal government will likely take longer, as FOIA does not have specific deadlines for the government to respond.) Business days do not include weekends and holidays. Make sure to fax your letter and keep the receipt, or send the letter return receipt requested. The receipt is proof the government received the letter.
For a PIA request, after 10 business days, the government can either produce the documents, or ask the Texas Attorney General’s office to decide the information is confidential. If the government chooses to ask the Attorney General, you will get a letter explaining the process. You will be allowed to explain to the Attorney General why the information is public. The Attorney General will make a decision and either require the government to produce the documents, or allow it to withhold them.
If the government does not respond to a PIA request after 10 business days, the information becomes public. You can file a lawsuit to make the government respond. Before filing a lawsuit, always consult an attorney. This information is not a substitute for a lawyer’s advice. The Texas Lawyer Referral Service can help you find a lawyer. 1-800-252-9690.