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Alabama Open Records Explainer

Last Updated: March 2024



Sample Annotated Request


1. What is the Alabama Open Records Act?

The Alabama Open Records Act (ORA) is a state law, located at Section 36-12-40 of the Alabama Code, that gives members of the public the right to access “any public writing” of state and local agencies and officials in Alabama. The ORA is also referred to as the Public Records Act or Public Writings Act.

2. Who can make an open records request?

  • The ORA states that “every citizen” has a right to access public records.[ii] However, the Alabama Attorney General has issued an opinion that the term “citizen” is limited to Alabama residents.[iii]

Practice Tip: Although Attorney General opinions are considered “advisory,” and Alabama courts are not required to follow them, it may be best for the request to be filed by an individual who resides in Alabama or an Alabama-based organization.
  • Both individuals and entities (like a business or a non-profit organization) can make open records requests.

3. Do you need to include an explanation of why you are filing your request?

  • An open records request can be made for any valid purpose, including personal and commercial purposes as well as public-interest and non-profit purposes.

  • An agency may deny a request that is “purely speculative” or made to “unduly interfere” with a public officer’s duties;[iv] but an agency should not deny a request because it disagrees with the requester’s purpose or with what the requester plans to do with the records.

  • Public agencies are allowed to require requesters to complete a simple form stating the reason for their request and other information.[v]

Practice Tip: A broad, generic statement of the request’s purpose (for example: “I am making this open records request under Alabama law”) should generally be sufficient. Some requesters may want to include additional details and context regarding the purpose of their request, especially if they are planning to use the request in connection with public advocacy. Providing a purpose for your request can also be helpful in potentially getting discounts on fees from certain agencies.

4. Which government officials or agencies can you request records from?

  • The ORA applies to all state and local government agencies and officials in Alabama—the governor, state legislators, state agencies and boards, sheriff’s offices, county health departments, city councilpersons, mayors, police departments, town clerks, etc.

  • Quasi-governmental bodies, such as water works boards and healthcare authorities that receive certain benefits or exercise certain powers typically limited to public agencies are also covered by the ORA.[vi]

5. What types of records can you request?

  • Almost all records created or received by government employees in the course of their official duties are considered public records or “public writings” that the public has a right to access under the ORA,[vii] unless a specific exemption (see below) applies.

Practice Tip: Get creative with the types of records you request—emails, text messages, maps, videos—and the agencies you request them from.

Sometimes multiple agencies may possess the types of records you are seeking, and some agencies may be faster and more cooperative than others in responding to records requests. You can also submit similar requests to different agencies simultaneously.

6. What types of records are exempt from being disclosed to you?

  • While the text of the ORA only lists two categories of records that are exempt from disclosure,[viii] the Alabama Legislature has created numerous additional statutory exceptions to the ORA—including, for example, one for law enforcement investigative reports and materials.[ix] The Alabama Supreme Court has also recognized several judicially-created exceptions.[x]

  • There is a general presumption in favor of disclosure under the ORA, and these exemptions are “narrowly construed” by Alabama courts[xi]—meaning that, if it’s a close case regarding whether or not the exemption applies, courts and the public agencies should lean toward disclosing, rather than hiding, the records.

Practice Tip: When making an open records request, requesters should ask the agency to state whether they are withholding any records they claim are exempt, specify which exemptions they claim apply, and release any non-exempt portions of records that contain both exempt and non-exempt materials. Remind agencies in your request that courts have said they must “narrowly construe” any exemptions.

7. What is the cost? Can you get a fee waiver?

  • Members of the public are generally permitted to inspect public records in-person free of charge.

  • Agencies may charge a “reasonable fee” for providing physical or electronic copies of records, as well as for the staff time required to retrieve and prepare records for inspection or copying.[xii]

  • In practice, many agencies in Alabama charge hefty fees for producing records, and the ORA does not cap the fees an agency can charge. However, a 2023 executive order places some limits on the fees charged by state executive-branch agencies.

  • The ORA does not contain any provisions regarding fee waivers.

Practice Tip: Requesters can always ask for a fee waiver—for example, by making a case for the public interest/public understanding grounds for a fee waiver under the federal Freedom of Information Act—but agencies have no obligation to consider or grant fee waiver requests.

8. How and where do you make a request?

  • There is no standard form for making an open records request, but some agencies require requesters to use an agency-specific form (like this online request form for the City of Birmingham or this request form from the Alabama Department of Corrections).

  • Other agencies accept requests by mail, email, fax, hand delivery, or oral requests over the phone or in person.

Practice Tip: It is best to confirm the preferred method of submission directly with the agency by checking their website or speaking with a staff person prior to submitting a request.

9. What is the process and timeline once a request is submitted?

  • The ORA does not set any specific deadlines by which an agency must respond to an open records request.

  • The Alabama Attorney General has issued an opinion that an agency “may not cause any unreasonable delays in accommodating a request for public records.”[xiv] And a 2023 executive order sets deadlines for state executive-branch agencies to acknowledge receipt of and respond to requests.

  • In practice, many state and local agencies in Alabama are notorious for extreme delays or complete unresponsiveness.

Practice Tip: Persistent follow-up is often the best way, before resorting to litigation and/or public pressure, to get an agency to respond to an open records request. Requesters should plan to regularly call, email, or visit the agency in person to inquire about the status of the request. Requesters may also want to offer or agree to clarify or narrow the scope of their request, for example by providing specific search terms, if the agency claims the request is too broad or vague. Make sure any agreement to clarify/narrow the request is put in writing, in case you need to use it in court later.

  • The ORA does not specify the format (e.g., paper, electronic) in which documents must be produced. The Alabama Attorney General's position is that agencies must make records available “in a reasonable manner,” but are not required to produce copies of the records at all, much less in any particular format or in the format preferred by the requester.[xvi]

Practice Tip: As a best practice, requesters should specify the desired format in which they would like to receive the documents, understanding that the agency may not need to comply.

10. What if the agency denies your request?

  • Unlike the federal Freedom of Information Act and some other state open records law, there is no administrative appeals process under the ORA.
  • If an agency denies all or just part of your request, you can immediately file a lawsuit in the circuit court for the county where the agency is located seeking a court order requiring the agency to produce the records. The lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date when the request was denied.
  • In some cases, an agency’s delay or failure to respond to a request may be considered a “constructive denial” that gives the requester the right to sue, but the law in Alabama is not clear on how long a requester needs to wait before suing based on a constructive denial.

Additional Resources


[i] Ala. Code § 36-12-40.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Ala. Att’y Gen. Op. 2018-030 (Apr. 19, 2018),

[iv] Stone v. Consol. Pub. Co., 404 So.2d 678, 680 (Ala. 1981).

[v] Blankenship v. Hoover, 590 So. 2d 245, 250 (Ala. 1991).

[vi] See Water Works & Sewer Bd. of City of Talladega v. Consol. Pub., Inc., 892 So.2d 859, 863 (Ala. 2004); Health Care Auth. for Baptist Health v. Central Ala. Radiation Oncology, LLC, 292 So.3d 623, 631-32 (Ala. 2019).

[vii] See Stone, supra note 4, at 681 (defining “public writing” as “such a record as is reasonably necessary to record the business and activities required to be done or carried on by a public officer so that the status and condition of such business and activities can be known by our citizens.”); see also Ala. Code § 41-13-1 (defining “public records”).

[viii] See Ala. Code § 36-12-40 (excepting from disclosure library registration and circulation records and records related to security and critical infrastructure).

[ix] Ala. Code § 12-21-3.1.

[x] See Stone, supra note 4, at 681.

[xi] Chambers v. Birmingham News Co., 552 So. 2d 854, 857 (Ala. 1989).

[xii] Ala. Att’y Gen. Op. 2016-049 (Aug. 9, 2016), Other Attorney General opinions and cases have given guidance on fees for specific agencies as well. For more information, see RCFP’s Alabama Open Government Guide.

[xiii] Gov. Kay Ivey, Executive Order No. 734: Promoting Transparency in State Government Through Enhanced Accessibility to Public Records (Jan. 26, 2023),

[xiv] Ala. Att’y Gen. Op. 2008-073 (Apr. 21, 2008),

[xv] See Executive Order No. 734, supra note 13.

[xvi] Ala. Att’y Gen. Op. 2007-001 (Oct. 2, 2006),