Massachusetts law about freedom of information and public records

A compilation of laws, regulations, cases, and web sources on freedom of information and public records law by the Trial Court Law Libraries.

Table of Contents

Best bet

FOIA.gov: the national FOIA portal
A great place to start for federal Freedom of Information Act requests. This site includes information and forms to help you submit FOIA requests. Also includes contact information for FOIA officers and liaisons at government agencies.

Massachusetts laws

MGL c.4 § 7 cl. 26 Definition of public records

MGL c.66 Public records

MGL c.66A Fair information practices act

Massachusetts regulations and guidelines

940 CMR 11 Fair information practices act

950 CMR 32 Public records access regulations

950 CMR 33 Information practices regulations

Public Records Response Guidelines for Executive Branch Secretariats and Agencies , Gov. Baker, July 30, 2015.
Memo to cabinet secretaries outlines requirements for responses to requests, including standardized charges and more.

Federal laws

5 USC § 552 Freedom of Information Act

Forms

Example of a FOI request letter, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Fully automated fill-in-the-blanks FOI letter generator, from the Student Press Law Center.

Selected case law

Attorney General v. Plymouth County District Attorney, 484 Mass. 260 (2020)
Information on a broad group of criminal case records was not exempt from a public records request if docket numbers were not included. 

Boston Globe Media Partners v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, 483 Mass. 80 (2019)
Public access to records of show cause hearings

Boston Globe Media Partners v. Dept. of Criminal Justice Information Services, 484 Mass. 279 (2020)
Booking photos and police reports that a newspaper requested from police related to the arrests of certain police officers were not exempt from disclosure under the public records law.

Boston Globe Media Group, LLC v. Dept. of Public Health, 482 Mass. 427 (2019)
Defines "public interest." Also concludes that, in certain circumstances, "there is a greater privacy interest in a compilation of personal information than in the discrete information that a compilation summarizes."

Champa v. Weston Public Schools, 473 Mass. 86 (2015). 
A settlement agreement between a public school and the parents of a student was exempt from the definition of “public records” and not subject to disclosure “without a redaction of personally identifiable information…”

Comm. v. Fremont Investment and Loan, 459 Mass. 209 (2011)
Massachusetts "public records law does not abrogate judicial protective orders."

Comm. v. Fujita, 470 Mass. 484 (2015)
A list of jurors must be "retained in the court file of the case and be made available to the public in the same manner as other court records. This court also concluded that only on a judicial finding of good cause, which may include a risk of harm to the jurors or to the integrity of their service, may such a list be withheld.

DaRosa v. New Bedford, 471 Mass. 446 (2015)
"We no longer hold to the view declared in General Electric [v. DEP, 429 Mass. 798 (1999)] that there are no implied exemptions to the public records act, and that all records in the possession of a governmental entity must be disclosed under the act unless they fall within one of the exemptions identified in G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth."

Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, __ U.S. __ (June 24, 2019)
"Where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is “confidential” within [the Freedom of Information Act] Exemption 4’s meaning."

Hull Municipal Lighting Plant v. Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co., 414 Mass. 609 (1993)
Public records are broadly defined and include all documentary materials made or received by an officer or employee of any corporation or public entity of the Commonwealth unless one of the nine statutory exemptions is applicable

Lambert v. Judicial Nominating Council, 425 Mass. 406 (1997)
Concluded that the records of the Judicial Nominating Council are not public records. “Neither the Legislature nor the Judiciary are expressly included G.L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth…” Additionally, the Governor is not included in clause Twenty-sixth, and “possesses incidental powers which he can exercise in aid of his primary responsibility.”

Larrabee v. Mass. Commission Against Discrimination, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 516 (2019)
An agency must follow its own regulations that require disclosure of information.

Peckham v. Boston Herald, Inc., 48 Mass. App. Ct. 282 (1999)
Judicial records are not within the law's definition of "public records," and so that law's privacy exemption did not apply in an invasion of privacy suit arising from a newspaper's reporting on a paternity action.

Rahim v. District Attorney of Suffolk County, 486 Mass. 544 (2020)
"[M]aterials that a district attorney requested and received from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were public records within the meaning of G. L. c. 66, § 10."

Suffolk Construction v. Dept. of Capital Asset Management, 449 Mass. 444 (2007)
In distinguishing the work-product doctrine from attorney-client privilege, the court ruled that documents covered by the attorney-client privilege are not subject to Massachusetts' public records law

Worcester Telegram & Gazette v. Chief of Police of Worcester, 58 Mass. App. Ct. 1 (2003)
"[M]aterials in an internal affairs investigation are different in kind from the ordinary evaluations, performance assessments and disciplinary determinations encompassed in the public records exemption for 'personnel [file] or information.'"

Record retention schedules

MGL c. 66, § 8 Preservation of certain books, papers and records; destruction of certain original instruments
Law gives the timeline for keeping state, county, city and town records

Massachusetts records retention schedules, Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Searchable database of municipal and statewide records retention schedules, providing detailed guidance in the storage and disposal of records

Massachusetts Trial Court record retention schedule, Administrative Office of the Trial Court
Outlines requirements for each court department.

Web sources

Police Records

Internal affairs and personnel records, SPR bulletin 3-04
Documents in an internal affairs investigation record are different from ordinary evaluation or discipline determinations. They are not typically not exempt from public records law as personnel information.

Other Public Records

Print sources

Administrative law, Matthew Bender, Part III: Public Information

Administrative law and practice, 2nd ed. (Mass Practice v.39), Thomson Reuters, 2016 with supplement. Chapters 16 and 18.

Bender’s forms of discovery, volume 16, chapter 14 “Freedom of information law and discovery”

Freedom of information and public records law in Massachusetts, 4th ed., MCLE, 2015

Guidebook to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, West, loose-leaf

“Litigation Under Freedom of Information Act,” 110 AmJur Trials 367

Massachusetts administrative law and practice, LexisNexis Practice Guide. Annual. Chapter 5, 6. 

Municipal law and practice, 5th ed. (Mass Practice v.18), Thomson/West, 2006 with supplement. Chapter 8.

Public records and open meeting law, MCLE, 2020.

"State Freedom of Information Act Requests: Right to Receive Information in Particular Medium or Format," 86 ALR4th 786

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Last updated: September 23, 2022
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