California’s Public Records Act Survives Legislative Defunding Threat

keyboardCalifornia’s Public Records Act survived a near miss last week. The EFF reports that the California legislature passed a bill last week that included a trailer to cut CPRA funding. The trailer bill would have made compliance with the CPRA optional for local governments.

Thanks to pressure from activists, the bill was replaced, and the CPRA language removed. But it’s still sitting on Gov. Brown’s desk.

California’s Public Records Act, codified at Cal. Gov. Code §6250 et seq. is a state version of the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It is designed to help citizens access the papers and records of state agencies. It covers all public records, defined in Cal. Gov. Code §6252 (e) as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” It also includes “Writings,” defined at §6252(g) as “any handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, photocopying, transmitting by electronic mail or facsimile, and every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.”

There are some exceptions to disclosure under the Act (§6254), including any information that is prohibited from disclosure by Federal or State law, personnel or medical the disclosure of which would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” information that was received in confidence from a third party, intelligence information and reports from law enforcement, test questions and exam data, certain taxpayer information, library circulation records, records and correspondence related to litigation and other privileged communication, workers’ compensation records, and many others. Cal. Gov. Code §6255 provides a “catch-all” exemption from disclosure. It requires that “The agency shall justify withholding any record by demonstrating that the record in question is exempt under express provisions of this chapter or that on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”

In all, the Act is to be construed broadly, placing the burden of justification for non-disclosure on the agency.

This is the second time in recent memory that the Legislature has acted to cut access to public records and documents in order to save money. California’s budget problems are no joke, but cutting access to records is probably the worst way to solve the problem. Journalists, watchdog groups, and others rely on this access to keep the government accountable. This is how we get behind the curtain and see how they are spending our money – this is how we keep the government honest.

For more information about the Public Records Act, visit the First Amendment Coalition Primer.

UPDATED 7/8: Free Gov Info has good coverage of this as well.