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Let the sunshine in: What to know about your right to public information in 4 Midwest states

Passed in 1967, the Freedom of Information Act requires that state and federal government agencies provide unclassified, unreleased information upon request by either an organization or a private citizen.
designer491/Getty Images
Passed in 1967, the Freedom of Information Act requires that state and federal government agencies provide unclassified, unreleased information upon request by either an organization or a private citizen.

Sunshine Week, observed each year in mid-March, aims to shine a national spotlight on these regulations that entitle Americans to information about government at all levels.

In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) affords members of the public the right to request records from the government and attend government meetings.

Passed in 1967, the act requires that state and federal government agencies provide unclassified, unreleased information upon request by either an organization or a private citizen.

If the information you want is not publicly available, you can submit a FOIA request to the agency’s FOIA office. The request must be in writing, and reasonably and clearly describe the documents or records you are seeking.

Requests can be sent electronically via email, web form, fax or mailed in. Agencies may charges fees associated with work related to your request.

There are nine exemptions to public records laws to protect national security and personal privacy.

On the state level, these laws are referred to as Sunshine Laws. Sunshine Week, held every March, aims the spotlight on the regulations that entitle Americans to information about government at all levels.

Some states centralize public records requests, while others leave the handling of requests to individual agencies.

Organizations like the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) and its state affiliates work to help journalists and members of the public understand these laws and how to use them effectively and in their best interest.

“The FOI laws help people participate more fully and intelligently in the democratic process,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and board president of the NFOIC. “Transparency fosters more trust between people and government, it discourages corruption, and it helps journalists expose wrongdoing.”

Curious what the Sunshine Laws look like in your state? We spoke with researchers and scholars from the Midwest about the mechanisms of their Sunshine Laws and just how simple, or not so simple it is, to access public information.


Iowa's open meetings law and Iowa's open records law, as they read in the books, are fairly robust guarantees of public access to a broad swath of public information.

Some of the provisions of the Iowa Sunshine Laws are unusually information-protective. For example, while many of the records exempted from the law fit within categories recognized by most jurisdictions, Iowa's exemptions for government personnel records and police investigative reports are notably broader than those in other jurisdictions, explained Cristina Tilley, a law professor at the University of Iowa.

The Iowa Public Information Board receives and investigates complaints from members of the public residents about alleged violations of open meetings and public records law. It can provide advice, resolve disputes through informal mediation, or issue orders that require compliance with Sunshine Laws. Alternatively, members of the public can sue in court.

“In short, the law on the books is reasonably adequate as an information lever for the people of Iowa,” Tilley said. “The law in action is considerably messier. Even when courts ultimately vindicate the rights of information seekers, the cost and delay of litigation can dilute public access rights.”


The Sunshine Laws in Kansas fall under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) and the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA). Under KORA, records maintained by state and local public agencies generally are presumed to be open and accessible to the public upon request.

Under KOMA, when officials at a public agency discuss public business, their meetings are generally presumed to be open to the public.

Both KORA and KOMA have prompted legal disputes over the statutes' exact meaning. KORA and KOMA also specify exceptions to openness that can be problematic and allow public agencies to act contrary to the presumption of openness, said Mike Kautsch, emeritus law professor at the University of Kansas.

For example, under KORA, law enforcement agencies have very broad authority to deny public access to records of criminal investigations. Because of this exception to openness, the public may be left in the dark about the nature of any particular police investigation.

The front façade of the Marion County Record.
Rose Conlon
Kansas News Service
After days of wide-spread criticism of the police raid, local prosecutors withdrew the search warrant and returned the seized materials to the Marion County newspaper.

In fact, Kansans still can't find out the scope and exact purpose of a major state investigation into the controversial police raid on a Kansas weekly newspaper, the Marion County Record, in August 2023. Unanswered questions include whether the state aims to bring criminal charges against journalists targeted by the raid, police who conducted it or someone else.

“In my view, the Kansas Sunshine Laws are relatively strong because they establish a presumption that government information is accessible to the public,” Kautsch said. “However, the laws have certain ambiguities and exceptions to openness that significantly weaken them.”


Under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, most records of public governmental bodies are presumptively open, but there is a long and increasing list of exceptions that agencies can assert to partially or entirely close records.

The Sunshine Law requires that these exceptions be interpreted narrowly, but in practice many public agencies apply them far too broadly, said Lisa S. Hoppenjans, an associate professor of law who is also director of First Amendment Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The law also makes it challenging to obtain certain types of records from law enforcement agencies,” she said. “There are complicated provisions that make certain law enforcement records open or closed depending on timing, the status of the investigation, and who is making the request. These provisions can be hard for the average citizen to understand.”

Private citizens can either sue over open meetings and public records issues or file complaints to the Missouri Attorney General. The office reviews the complaints and can resolve the issue in a number of ways.

In June 2023, a Cole County judge on Wednesday ordered the state to pay more than $240,000 in legal fees as part of a ruling that found the attorney general’s office “knowingly and purposefully” violated open records law while it was being run by now-U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley.

Two months later, the new Missouri Attorney General, Andrew Bailey, announced his office had cleared a backlog of records requests dating to 2021.


Compared to most states, Nebraska’s public records laws — at least on the surface — suggest a high degree of transparency and public access, said Michael K. Park, an assistant professor of media law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“For instance, Nebraska’s public records laws shall be 'liberally construed' to include documents and records that a public body is entitled to possess, irrespective of whether the body takes actual possession,” Park said. “The state does not require a reason for the request, nor does the requester need to be a Nebraska resident.”

Nebraska mandates a quick, four-day response time for a FOI request. This is one of the quickest statutorily-mandated response times in the nation and it applies to all of state government.

“Of course the devil is in the details, so while the language of the public records laws are constructed to suggest liberal access and transparency, the laws as-applied are another matter,” Park said.

While Sunshine Laws allow state agencies to charge fees for work and materials related to a request, the costs can vary.

In 2023, the Flatwater Free Press asked the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy for emails and other documents containing the words “nitrate,” “fertilizer” and “nutrient.” The non-profit news organization sued when the agency said the request would cost more than $40,000.

In March, the state Supreme Court ruled against Flatwater Free Press saying a "special service charge" was warranted because “voluminous (records) requests could be disruptive to the public body.”

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Lauryn Higgins is a journalist whose work focuses primarily on public health, agriculture and climate change. A native of North Carolina, she now resides in Nebraska.
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