South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, September 2006, #1.
SOUTH CAROLINA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
South Carolina LawyerSeptember 2006SOUTH CAROLINA FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACTBy Burnett R. Maybank III and Alexandra P. EiknerJuly 2006 marked the 40th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966. The Freedom of Information Act set the stage for South Carolina's version of the Act, which was enacted in 1978 and focuses on "open-records and open-meetings." Thus, in celebration of the Act, it is only fitting to review the FOIA as it applies to South Carolina. This article provides some background information on the FOIA and examines exactly who is subject to the Act.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was created to ensure that "public business is performed in an open and public manner . [making] it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings." S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-15. The Act guarantees every citizen the right to attend government meetings at all levels and obtain documents and records kept by state and local jurisdictions. South Carolina Press Ass'n, Public Official's Guide to Compliance with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act, at 2 (2004), available at http://www.scpress.org.
All entities supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds, regardless of what the group calls itself or is known as, are considered public bodies and are subject to the FOIA. S.C. Code § 30-4-20(a). However, health care facilities are exempt from the FOIA for medical staff disciplinary proceedings, quality assurance, peer review, medical staff credentialing process, specific medical case review and self-evaluation. Id.
The Act applies to "public bodies." As discussed below, the definition of "public bodies" may include "private" nonprofits. Entities subject to the Act must comply with a variety of statutory requirements. These include:
1) making available for public inspection and copying certain documents, including minutes of meetings, during regular office hours without any written request;
2) making available for inspection and copying upon written request any "public record";
3) holding meetings that are open to the public;
4) providing written notice of all public meetings not later than 24 hours before the meeting; and
5) notifying persons or organizations, local news media or such other news media as may request notification of the times, places and agenda of all public meetings.
S.C. Code § 30-4-30(a), (b), (d); S.C. Code § 30-4-60; S.C. Code § 30-4-80(a), (e). As stated below, penalties for non-compliance may be severe.
Definition of "public body"
The definition of "public body" is quite broad. Naturally it includes any department of the state, any state board, commission or agency as well as any political subdivision of the state, including counties, municipalities and school districts. S.C. Code § 30-4-20. The Act goes on, however, to explicitly include "any organization, corporation, or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds, including committees, subcommittees, advisory committees, and the like of any such body by whatever name known. ." Id. (emp. added.)
At issue in Weston v. Carolina Research and Development Foundation, 303 S.C. 398, 401 S. E. 2d 161 (1991), was whether the Carolina Research and Development Foundation was subject to the FOIA under the italicized language above. The...