The details of public records laws are different from state to state, but one possibility for business owners is that their documents might be public records. And public records are open and accessible to the public. Any business document could become public, like when hacked emails are published, but I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about business documents that could be released in response to a public records request.
If your business is regulated by a government entity, you probably submit correspondence, permit applications, reports, or other documents to comply with different laws and regulations. You might send your documents to a particular person or office, but they do not stay on that person’s desk or in that office’s file cabinet. They are collected into a central filing system (paper or electronic), and they become public records.
Even your internal business documents could become public records if you do work for a government entity. Documents that are related to the business you have with a government entity may be subject to public records laws.
You may have very little control over the content of some of the documents you submit to a government entity. For example, water monitoring reports are usually just data listed in a rigid report format. When you do have control, it is important to remember that many more people than a department administrator may read what you are writing.
My first job out of college was working in public records at a state department of environmental quality. We spent our time providing copies of documents in response to public records requests. Here are a few examples of business documents that I have seen included as public records:
- Copies of internal workplace policies and safety procedures.
- Letters of response to citizen complaints.
- Reports and minutes from meetings at which business representatives presented information (sometimes with copies of the speaker’s notes).
- Correspondence with government administrators (including e-mails).
I recently went to the Ohio Attorney General's Sunshine Law Training. The training was an excellent reminder of my time in public records, and a reminder of a few things to double-check when I'm working on a project that could generate public records:
- Wording that may seem defensive or angry.
- Phrasing that lay readers may misunderstand or interpret negatively.
- Spelling, grammar, and typographical errors.
- Unprofessional or inappropriately informal language.
State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Krings. 2001. Accessed September 27, 2013. http://www.leagle.com/decision/200174793OhioSt3d654_1646.
Wikimedia Foundation. 2013. “Public records.” Accessed September 27. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_records.