The procedural section of the Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law states, in part:
“A written request should identify or describe the records sought with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to ascertain which records are being requested…”
In other words – you have to make it clear what you want!
- Include a timeframe.
- Indicate the subject matter.
- Put some limit on the scope of your request.
Specificity often becomes an issue for requesters who seek emails from an agency. For example, if you are interested in learning about seatbelt use in Pennsylvania, you might want to request all of PennDOT’s emails that mention the word “seatbelt.” However, this will certainly fail the specificity test of § 703.
A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case, Dep’t of Educ. v. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 119 A.3d 1121, set forth a three-part balancing test used to determine whether a request is specific enough to warrant a response under the RTKL, stating that specificity depends on a balance of subject matter, scope and timeframe.
Instead of requesting all of PennDot’s emails that mention the word “seatbelt”, add some limitations to your request. You could figure out the name of the person in charge of a recent study on seatbelt usage, and request emails to or from that person. Add a timeframe limitation – you know that PennDOT completed the study in last spring, so request emails from March 1 through May 31, 2018. Finally, limit the scope – do you need every email with the word “seatbelt” in it, or are you actually after emails discussing the seatbelt study?
If you have any questions on this topic please contact Megan Shannon at
ABOUT MEGAN SHANNON
Megan Shannon is an attorney in the firm’s insurance recovery group. She represents policyholders in disputes with insurance companies involving a wide range of insurance policies. She advises clients on the insurance coverage available to them when they suffer a loss or are named as a defendant in litigation. Ms. Shannon helps clients present claims to their insurance company to efficiently claim all benefits.
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