Citing the state’s public records law, the Observer originally requested access to email exchanges between the governor and legislators, administrative officials, companies and others, said Rick Thames, the Observer’s executive editor. The governor’s press office acknowledged the request shortly afterward.
“We think that it’s important to understand completely as possible the deliberation, the thought processes behind House Bill 2 — and House Bill 2 has had a tremendous impact on the state — so this is our only recourse,” Thames said. “The government has withheld the records and all we can do is now go to court and sue in an effort to get them.”
In July 2015, a media coalition, including the Charlotte Observer, filed a separate lawsuit against the McCrory administration for alleged repeat violations of public records law.
“We think that it’s important that people in the state understand how difficult it has been under the McCrory administration to gain access to records that are supposed to be public,” Thames said.
North Carolina’s public records law states that government agencies should respond to requests as promptly as possible.
Frayda Bluestein, a professor in the UNC School of Government, said the vague time constraints leave room for interpretation and allow government agencies more time to handle expansive records requests, especially considering the large number of records available electronically.
“It is a vague standard and it’s flexible, which I think is appropriate in the sense that there can be a wide range of differences between a very simple request and one that requires lots of searching and lots of review,” Bluestein said.
David Schulz, a professor and researcher at Yale Law School, said records requests are relevant nationally as well.
“The basic structure of the freedom of information laws has not been working very well on a large scale,” he said. “There aren’t sufficient resources to make them effective in many instances, particularly true at the national level.”
Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said journalists are negatively impacted by delays in receiving records.
“If they’re going to be able to do their job to inform the public about what the government’s doing, it’s important for reporters to have timely access to government records,” he said.
Schulz said access to public records plays a vital role in democracy.
“I think people need to appreciate that the importance of public records law is that our democracy can’t function effectively if we don’t know what government is up to, and particularly in a day when the governments have greater and greater power to keep track of us, we need to have greater tools to keep track of the government,” he said.