South Carolina Freedom of Information Act
What is the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that provides a person with the right to obtain access to government records or information unless specific laws prohibit their disclosure. The FOIA is essential to governance as it allows openness and keeps the public abreast of the expenditure of public funds. The open record law in South Carolina is known as the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act. It is contained in Title 30, Chapter 4 of the South Carolina Code of Laws. This Act provides a means by which the public can have a clearer understanding of all state government agencies' activities.
The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act requires all public bodies to make all non-exempt records/information available to the public on request. Public bodies subject to the Act include state departments, commissions, boards, agencies, and directors of departments under the state government's executive branch. Also covered by the South Carolina FOIA are the state's political subdivisions, including townships, municipalities, counties, school districts, and any other agency that receives funding, in part or whole, by public funds. Stating the purpose of seeking a public record from any public agency is not required under the South Carolina FOIA.
The South Carolina FOIA has had some modifications since it was first enacted and codified into the State Code in 1978. In 2006, the state legislature amended it to make provisions concerning certain disclosures by a public body. Most recently, in 2017, via H3352, were significant amendments that included electronic transmissions among the record formats available for inspection in the South Carolina FOIA. The 2017 modifications also provided that public agencies are not required to create electronic copies of public records to satisfy records requests if they do not exist at the time of receiving such requests. The amendments revised the time limits for responding to public records requests and made provisions allowing public bodies to charge requesters certain amounts before searching and copying sought records.
What is Covered Under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act?
All non-exempt public records are subject to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act. These include cards, books, maps, papers, recordings, or other materials regardless of physical form, created, owned, used, and held by public agencies. Emails and electronic records such as telephone logs and text messages are also covered under the South Carolina FOIA.
Per Section 30-4-30(D) of the South Carolina Code of Laws, the following records of a public agency are also subject to the state's FOIA:
- Documents created by the public agency or its representative, which were checked by or distributed to a member of the agency in a public meeting within six months before a request
- All documents or reports containing the substance, nature, and location of any crime or alleged crime as having been committed for at least 14 days before a request
- Documents identifying individuals incarcerated in a prison, jail, or detention center for the prior three months
A public agency must make these public records available for inspection and copying during their regular operating hours unless exempt by other state or federal statutes.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in South Carolina?
The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act exempts certain records/information/documents from public disclosure to avoid jeopardizing state security and prevent the undue invasion of people's privacy. Section 30-4-40 of the state's Code of Laws lists the following records as exempt from the South Carolina FOIA:
- Work products or correspondence of a public agency's legal counsel, that if disclosed, would violate attorney-client relationships
- All documents collected by a public agency while trying to fill an employment position, except those relating to not less than the final three applicants being considered for the position
- Any personal information, such as name, address, and telephone number, that its disclosure would constitute an unreasonable invasion of a person's privacy
- Trade secrets, which include commercially valuable plans, processes, and evaluations containing competitive information and references to potential clients
- Records compiled for law enforcement purposes that, if released, would cause the following:
- Constitute an invasion of a person's privacy and endanger their life or physical safety
- Meddle with a future law enforcement proceeding
- Reveal the procedures for law enforcement investigations
- Deprive an individual of a right to a fair trial
- Disclose the details of intercepted electronic or oral communications not otherwise revealed during a trial
- Records containing all compensation paid by public agencies for classified and unclassified employees and agency or department heads
- Audio recordings, videos, photographs, and other pictorial images related to the performance of an autopsy except by individuals listed in Section 17-5-535 of the South Carolina Code of Laws
- Identifying information of any person who in honesty makes a complaint to a state regulatory agency on an alleged violation or potential violation of law
- Designs or plans of a structural bridge unless the disclosure is crucial for procurement purposes
- All matters specifically exempted by law from public disclosure
- Information on any standards (used or proposed) by the South Carolina Department of Revenue (DOR) for selecting returns examination, which if disclosed, would impair tax collection, assessment, or enforcement
How Do I File a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act Request?
The first step to filing a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is identifying the public body maintaining such a record. The state's FOIA does not specify how a person should file a public record request with a government agency. Individuals can inspect certain records of public agencies and make copies when they appear in person. While most agencies prefer written public records requests, it is still essential to contact them before filing a request to avoid going back and forth on a request. Generally, they accept FOIA request submissions by email, mail, facsimile, and in person.
For example, while the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (SCDHHS) is indifferent to receiving a written FOIA request, it encourages requesters to use its branded FOIA Request Form. Individuals seeking to obtain copies of public records from the SCHHHS can file their requests via email or submit such requests in person, by facsimile, or mail at/to:
South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
Office of General Counsel/FOIA
1801 Main Street
P.O. Box 8206
Columbia, SC 29202
Fax: (803) 255-8210
The Public Service Commission of South Carolina (PSC) also provides a customized FOIA Request Form, although it does not reject written requests. A person can request copies of a public record held by the PSC by submitting a completed FOIA request form or a detailed written letter by mail, facsimile, or in-person to/at:
The Public Service Commission of South Carolina
101 Executive Center Drive, Suite 100
Columbia, SC 29210
Fax: (803) 896-5231
All public records requests under the South Carolina FOIA must be detailed to help public agencies locate them more quickly. Once a person identifies the agency in possession of their record of interest, they may contact them via all available options for further inquiries. The South Carolina government maintains a directory of state agencies for use by the public, including potential public records requesters.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in South Carolina?
Generally, the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) prohibits public agencies from charging record requesters assessment fees for records review to determine whether they are subject to disclosure. However, the Act requires public agencies to release copies of public records to requesters at the lowest possible costs. According to Section 30-4-30(B) of the South Carolina Code of Laws, a public agency may charge fees for searching, redacting, and copying public records. The state's Code limits such fees to no more than 25% of the reasonably expected cost of making copies of the records. Such costs must not be more than the hourly salary of the lowest-paid employee of the agency with the required training and skill to make copies of requested records available.
The South Carolina FOIA requires public agencies to share their fee schedules for public records production online. For instance, as published by the SCDHHS, the department charges the following fees on public records requests; $20/hour search fee, $20/hour redaction fee, $20/hour redaction fee, $5 per disc, and 20 cents per page of paper records. The South Carolina Department of Insurance (SCDOI) also shares the department's record copying fee schedule online. Similarly, the public records fee schedule of the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) is on the department's FOIA Request Form.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in South Carolina?
For public records 24 months old and below, the South Carolina FOIA requires public agencies to provide an initial response to requesters within 10 business days of receiving requests. If an agency grants such a request, it must provide copies of the record to the requester within 30 calendar days from the day it initially responded to the request. Where sought records are more than 24 months since they were created, public agencies must provide an initial response to such records requests within 20 working days. If the record request is granted, the public agency has within 35 days from the day it initially responded to make copies of the record available to the requester.
If a public agency fails to respond to a FOIA request or denies it, the requester may apply to a Circuit Court to seek a judgment to enforce the FOIA provisions. An aggrieved requester must file the lawsuit within one year of the alleged violation of the South Carolina FOIA by such a public body.