Iowa Freedom of Information Act

What is the Iowa Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that grants individuals the right to inspect and obtain copies of government records, except those exempted from public disclosure. The FOIA was created to promote the openness and effectiveness of the national, state, and local governments. The Iowa Open Records Law is contained in Chapter 21 and Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code. Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code makes records of governmental bodies' meetings and the decisions made at such meetings accessible to the public. Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code grants members of the public the right to examine and obtain public records in the state.

The Iowa Open Records Law was enacted in 1967 in response to complaints by citizens about the lack of access to public records. However, there have been amendments to the law to introduce some exemptions to public disclosure since its enactment. According to Section 22.7 of the Iowa Open Records Law, there are over 70 exemptions to public disclosure, which are records adjudged to contain sensitive or personal information.

What is Covered Under the Iowa Freedom of Information Act?

The purpose of the Iowa Public Records Law is to make the records of government activities accessible to members of the public. Other than records exempted from public disclosure, all government records maintained as physical or digital records are subject to the Iowa Public Records Law. Public records maintained as physical records include brochures, license applications, tax returns, and other forms of records preserved in paper format. Digital records include records maintained in electronic devices such as computer files, CD/DVDs, USB drives, emails, voicemails, and text messages.

According to Chapter 22.2 of the Iowa Code, everyone has a right to request and examine and make copies of public records maintained by public institutions. Following Section 622.46 of the Iowa Code, certified copies of public records are authorized to be released to requesters upon the payment of the legal fees required for the documents. Records of government activities contracted to non-government bodies for collation, or other services are not exempt from public disclosure.

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

The Iowa Public Records Law makes provision for a number of exemptions to protect the privacy rights of people. Exemptions to the Iowa FOIA are stated in Section 22.2 of the Iowa Code, some of which are:

  • Personal medical records: The medical record of an individual may not be accessed unless a requester presents a court order authorizing the release of the medical record.
  • Students personal information: Personal information of current students, former students, and prospective students are prohibited from public record disclosure
  • Company trade secrets: Trade secrets of organizations submitted to the government during official documentation processes are recognized and protected as secrets. They are not subject to public disclosure
  • Peace officers’ investigative report: Investigation records of peace officers are not subject to public disclosure as they may contain sensitive information
  • Military confidential records: Records of military operations that may jeopardize security protocols are not open public
  • Crime records of individuals: Iowa does not allow the release of criminal files of individuals to the public
  • Records of state attorneys: Details of the activities of attorneys representing the state are not subject to public disclosure
  • Sensitive information about public land purchases
  • Sensitive information about donors of charitable contributions
  • Information about the operations of the Department of Corrections that may compromise public security
  • Data processing software developed either by a government body or an organization contracted by the government and used by the government body
  • Examination records: Examination records, including cognitive and psychological tests by law enforcement agents are not subject to public disclosure as their release may infringe on the record subjects’ privacy rights
  • Information available to mediators resolving disputes between government agencies are not subject to public disclosure

How Do I File an Iowa Freedom of Information Act Request?

Any member of the public in Iowa may file a FOIA request. However, the person requesting a public record must first determine which government agency maintains the record they wish to access. They may check for the names and telephone numbers of the contact persons in the applicable government agency using the Iowa Official Register for government agencies. These contacts will help reach the respective record custodians. According to Section 22.4 of the Iowa Code, a Freedom of Information Act request may be done:

  • In-person: During office hours, a person may visit the office of the record custodian of the public agency that maintains the record they seek to obtain. Section 22.4 of the Iowa Code also states that persons requesting public records may visit the office of record custodians between the hours of 9:00 a.m and 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. from Mondays through Fridays. The Iowa Code requires that the viewing and copying of public records are done under the supervision of a lawful record custodian or a person designated by the record custodian. In-person requests for public records may not be made on public holidays. However, a lawful record custodian may agree with a requester to execute their request at any time outside office hours.
  • In writing: A person requesting a public record may write a letter to the applicable record custodian maintaining the record. The requester must be clear and specific about the record they wish to obtain when writing the application. The requester should also include their phone number in the written request in case the record custodian may need to contact them for clarifications or updates. A requester can use the Sample Records Request Letter provided by the Iowa Public Information Board as a guide when writing their application.
  • By telephone or electronic means: A requester may get the telephone number or email of the applicable record custodian maintaining the record they wish to obtain through the agency's official website. They may contact the record custodian over the phone or send an email request. The Iowa Open Records Law allows record custodians to respond to public record requests through emails and telephone calls. A requester for public record in Iowa does not need to be physically present at the office of the record custodian before they receive copies of public records requested.

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

According to Section 22.3 of the Iowa Code, requesters for public records in the state are required to pay the costs incurred in the examination and copying of records. The law allows record custodians to determine reasonable costs required to examine and make copies of public records. The law also authorizes record custodians to charge reasonable fees to cover the time spent processing requested records. However, the cost to execute the service must not exceed the actual commercial cost of such service. In some cases, a record custodian may not be able to examine and produce copies of records requested in their office. They may need to secure a suitable place for this purpose to prevent damages to documents and the disorganization of records. The estimated costs incurred on these are to be paid by the requester.

Record custodians require requesters to pay the necessary fees before examining or copying requested records. For instance, the Iowa Department of Public Health requires requesters to pay $15 to search for vital records. The estimated cost shall not include regular expenses associated with the administration of the record custodians' office, such as maintenance, depreciation, electricity etc. According to Section 22.3.2 of the Iowa Code, county recorders in the state are not allowed to charge fees for examining and copying records needed to file claims with the Iowa Department of Veteran Affairs.

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

Record custodians in public organizations are expected to respond to FOIA requests as soon as they receive the applications. However, Section 22.8.4 of the Iowa Code permits record custodians in the state to reasonably delay the examination and copying of public records if the purpose of the delay is to:

  • Clarify whether the record custodian is authorized to seek an injunction against the public record request
  • Seek an injunction against the public record request on the basis that releasing such record will:
    • Not be in the best interest of the public
    • Cause an irreparable injury to any person or persons
  • Clarify whether the record requested may be classified as a public record or a confidential record
  • Determine if a confidential record requested by an applicant may be made available for inspection and copying

Considering the time allowed for a reasonable delay, Section 22.8.4(d) of the Iowa Code states that a lawful record custodian should provide public records requested from their office within 10 business days. However, a reasonable delay due to any of the above-listed reasons must not exceed 20 calendar days. A public record request may be termed a denial if the requester does not receive a response after 20 calendar days. A requester has thirty days after a denial of public record to file for judicial review in any of the Iowa District Courts and up to sixty days to file a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board.