Washington Freedom of Information Act

What is the Washington Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act is a state or federal law that permits partial or full access to public records maintained by public bodies within a particular jurisdiction. The law ensures public records are available to the public upon request. It also protects sensitive records that may jeopardize public safety or infringe on individuals’ privacy rights. In Washington, the Freedom of Information Act is known as the Washington Public Records Act, contained in Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Chapter 42.56. The Act became effective on January 1, 1973. It grants citizens the right to view and make copies of all records and materials maintained by state and local agencies, except those exempted from the law.

Some changes have been made to the Washington Public Records Act, which have impacted the disclosure of public records. Some of the most recent changes to the law are the exemption of election security records and the redefinition of the news media under the Revised Code of Washington 5.68.010(5). A new retention period for certain law enforcement personnel records was also established under the Revised Code of Washington 40.14.070. The new retention period established is the duration of the officer’s employment and a minimum of 10 years after.

What is Covered Under the Washington Freedom of Information Act?

The Washington Public Records Act covers public records owned, created, or used by state agencies (such as departments, divisions, and bureaus) or local agencies (such as counties, cities, and municipal corporations). The Revised Code of Washington 42.56.010 defines public records as any information on the government's conduct or the execution of governmental and proprietary responsibilities. Physical and electronic forms of public records in Washington include documents, bound record books, correspondence, completed forms, films, photographs, sound recordings, map drawings, machine-readable materials, and other recordings. According to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives, public records also include legislative records defined in Revised Code of Washington 40.14.100, and the following:

  • All budget and financial records
  • Records of legislative sessions
  • Personnel leave, travel, and payroll records
  • Reports submitted to the legislature
  • Any record classified as a public record by any official action of the Senate or the House of Representatives

What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Washington?

Several records are exempt from the Washington Public Records Act mainly because the release of the records may constitute invasion of the records subjects’ privacy. The exemptions to the law are contained in the Revised Code of Washington 40.14.210-480, some of which are:

  • Certain personal and confidential income data
  • Personal information as defined under Revised Code of Washington 42.56.230, some of which are:
    • Personal information in files held for students in public schools, patients or clients of public institutions or public health agencies, or welfare recipients
    • Personal information for children enrolled in public or nonprofit programs or licensed child care in files kept by the department of children, youth, and families
    • Personal information in files held for staff, appointees, or elected officials of public agencies, if disclosure would violate their rights to privacy
    • Taxpayer information required in the assessment or collection of any tax, if disclosure would violate the taxpayer's right to privacy or lead to an unfair competitive disadvantage to the taxpayer
    • Records of individual claim resolution settlement agreements submitted to the board of industrial insurance appeals per the Revised Code of Washington 51.04.063, except for final orders from the board of industrial insurance appeals
    • Bank and financial information, including credit card and debit card numbers, social security numbers, electronic check numbers, and card expiration dates, stated in the Revised Code of Washington 9.35.005, except if the disclosure is required or governed by other law
    • Personal and financial information on a small loan or any system of authorizing a small loan in the Revised Code of Washington 31.45.093
    • Records used as proof of identity, age, residential address, social security number, or other personal information required during driver’s license applications
    • 911 emergency communications
  • Religious affiliation exemption, including records relating to personally identifying information about an individual's religious affiliations, beliefs, and practices
  • Preliminary drafts, notes, intra-agency recommendations, and memorandums
  • Investigation, law enforcement, and crime victims records
  • Health care records
  • Vital records
  • Financial, commercial, and proprietary information
  • Records of archeological sites

How Do I File a Washington Freedom of Information Act Request?

Anyone interested in obtaining a public record in Washington can file a public record request in the state or local agency maintaining the records. Requesters have multiple options of filing public records requests, including:

  • In-person
  • By mail, email, or fax
  • Over the telephone

A requester can get the direct address and telephone number of the state agency maintaining the record they seek to obtain through the Access Washington website. This website provides the website links to all state agencies, boards, and commissions. A requester can also obtain the telephone number of an agency by calling the Olympia area information operator at (360) 753-5000 or (800) 321-2808. Typically, the procedures for requesting public records, contact information, and the addresses where requesters may submit record requests are listed on each agency’s website. In some cases, state agencies provide requesters with online request forms to be filled out when requesting public records. However, with other state agencies, requesters will simply be required to submit written requests, which will include their names, phone numbers, email addresses, and precise descriptions of the requested records.

For instance, the Washington State Department of Commerce requires requesters to file written public disclosure requests for records and submit the requests by mail to:

Public Disclosure Requests
Washington State Department of Commerce
P.O. Box 42525
Olympia, WA 98504-2525
Phone: (360) 725-2706

What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Washington?

As prescribed in the Revised Code of Washington 42.56.120, an agency may charge reasonable fees for making copies of public records available, but the fees must not be more than the actual costs of copying the records. The fee limits prescribed by the Revised Code of Washington 42.56.120 include:

  • 15 cents per page for public records photocopies and printed copies of electronic public records
  • 10 cents per page for public records scanned into electronic format or for the use of an agency equipment to scan documents
  • 5 cents for every four electronic files or attachments uploaded to emails, cloud-based data storage services, or other electronic delivery systems
  • 10 cents per gigabyte for transmitting public records in electronic format or for the use of agency equipment to transmit the records electronically
  • The actual cost will be charged for any:
    • Digital storage media or device the agency provides
    • Container or envelope used to mail public record copies to the requester
    • Postage or delivery

As an alternative to the prescribed fees listed above, an agency may charge a flat fee of up to $2 for a request when the agency reasonably estimates that the costs prescribed above are clearly equal to or more than $2. After the initial flat fee, an agency is not permitted to charge another fee. An agency is also not permitted to charge copying fees for records that it regularly posts on its public internet website before the receipt of a request. However, fees may apply if the requester specifically requests that the agency provides copies of such a record via other means.

In addition to the regular charges for searching for, copying, and delivering public records, an agency may include a customized service charge. However, this is only permitted if the agency ascertains that the request would require an information technology expert to prepare data compilations or provide customized electronic access services if the agency is not using such services for other purposes. The customized service charge must be the actual cost of providing the services. Before a customized service charge is imposed, the agency will send a notice to the requester and provide them the opportunity to amend their request in order to reduce or avoid the customized service charge.

How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Washington?

According to the Revised Code of Washington 42.56.520, an agency must respond to a public record request within five business days of receiving the request. An agency may respond by:

  • Providing the record
  • Providing a website link on the agency's website to the specific record requested. However, if a requester notifies the agency that they cannot access the record through the internet, the agency will be required to provide copies of the record or allow the requester to view copies using an agency computer
  • Acknowledging that they have received the request and providing a reasonable estimated time that they will respond to the request
  • Acknowledging that they have received the request and asking the requester to clarify the request if it is unclear and providing a reasonable estimated time that they will respond to the request
  • Denying the public record request

However, an agency may request additional time to:

  • Ascertain and clarify the intent of the request
  • Locate and gather the information requested
  • Notify third persons or agencies affected by the request
  • Determine whether the record requested is exempt and denial should be made to all or part of the requested record.

If a public record request is denied, the agency will send a written statement of the specific reasons for the denial. A person denied access to a record can appeal to the Attorney General to review the matter by submitting a written request for Attorney General review, a copy of the request initially sent to the agency, and the agency’s written denial to:

Office of the Attorney General
Public Records Review
P.O. Box 40100
Olympia, WA 98504-0100

A person denied access to a record may also file a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the county where the agency is located. However, for a case against a county, a person denied access to a record may file a lawsuit in the adjoining county. A lawsuit may also be filed if there is an unreasonable delay by the agency.