City of San Jose v. Superior Court (Government Transparency)

Closed Case
Mar 02, 2017

Page Media

computer with cell phone

The City of San Jose claims that that electronic messages dealing with official business that its employees send to one another are not public records if the employees send them using their personal accounts or devices. That would allow public officials to shield records relating to public business from disclosure for whatever reason, including avoiding discomfort or embarrassment, with a few clicks of a mouse or a pivot from an office computer to a laptop brought from home. Unfortunately, the California Court of Appeal issued an opinion that allows just this outcome.

The ACLU Foundations of California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are asking the California Supreme Court to grant review in the interest of an open and transparent government. When the people of California overwhelmingly voted to enact Proposition 59, they made clear the importance that they attach to their “right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.” The Court of Appeal’s unduly narrow reading of the PRA’s definition of “public record” violates the constitutional imperative that the law be read broadly so as to increase public access to information about the people’s business and will gut public disclosure law by allowing government officials and employees to circumvent the PRA. It is not necessary to protect privacy.

On June 25, 2014, the California Supreme Court voted to hear the case. This means that the Court of Appeal's flawed opinion is no longer the law.

On March 2, 2017, the California Supreme Court released a unanimous decision holding that when a city employee uses a personal account to communicate about the public’s business, those writings may be subject to the California Public Records Act. The Court held that records of the public’s business created and stored on personal accounts were “public records” within the meaning of the law, and that the California Constitution supports this interpretation. In ruling this way, the Court rejected San Jose’s cramped reading of the public records statutes and argument that because these records weren’t in the actual possession of local governments, that they were outside the reach of the public records law. This is a landmark ruling that ensures California’s open government laws have continued force and relevance in the digital age.