Glossary search

public record

Broader Term: 

n. ~ 1. Data or information in a fixed format that was created or received by a government agency in the course of business and that is preserved for future reference. - 2. Records filed with a government agency to give constructive notice. - 3. Government records that are not restricted and are accessible to the public.


A number of federal laws define public record1 in different contexts. For example, 44 USC 3301, Public Printing and Documents, defines records (cited below), as does the Freedom of Information Act, and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Public record is also defined in the Federal Rules of Evidence. Many states also have similar definitions of public record in different statutes. In general, the legal definition of public record encompasses almost any information held in a governmental office. However, freedom of information laws, also called open records laws, may restrict the public's right of access to those records. For example, records relating to current procurement processes, pending litigation, or national security are typically restricted to protect government interests.

(AJS, Records §26) The question whether raw data collected by public departments or officials constitutes a public record, within the meaning of the rule giving private persons the right of access to, inspection of, or copying of public records, appears to depend largely on the provisions of the statute giving the right of access, inspection, or copying. Some cases take the view that material gathered by way of preliminary investigation does not become a public record before some official action of approval or disapproval. On the other hand, the drawing of a distinction between writings representing tentative action and those memorializing ultimate action has been regarded as objectionable, not only because it is inconsistent with the principle which underlies the statutes making public writings freely available for inspection, but also because it provides a device by which a public official can hinder a citizen's legitimate attempt to obtain writings which are clearly within the strictest definition of a public record.
(CJS, Records §2) A 'public record' is defined as one required by law to be kept, or necessary to be kept in the discharge of a duty imposed by law, or directed by law to serve as a memorial and evidence of something written, said, or done, or a written memorial made by a public officer authorized to perform that function, or a writing filed in a public office. ¶ The elements essential to constitute a public record are, namely, that it be a written memorial, that it be made by a public officer, and that the officer be authorized by law to make it. . . . The two main requirements of a public record are that it shall be accurate and durable. . . . A record is intended not only to give an instrument perpetuity, but also publicity, or to give notice.
(CJS, Records §31) In the absence of a showing of fraud or unauthorized alteration, a public record imports absolute verity. It is presumed to be correct, and cannot be collaterally attacked. The record is prima facie evidence of the facts therein set forth, and under some circumstances may be regarded as conclusive evidence thereof.
(Fed. R. Evid., 803 (8)) Public records and reports. Records, reports, statements, or data compilations, in any form, of public offices or agencies, setting forth (A) the activities of the office or agency, or (B) matters observed pursuant to duty imposed by law as to which matters there was a duty to report, excluding, however, in criminal cases matters observed by police officers and other law enforcement personnel, or (C) in civil actions and proceedings and against the Government in criminal cases, factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law, unless the sources of information or other circumstances indicate lack of trustworthiness.
(USC, 44 USC 3301) Records includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government or because of the informational value of data in them. Library and museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for reference or exhibition purposes, extra copies of documents preserved only for convenience of reference, and stocks of publications and of processed documents are not included.