California Supreme Court Deciding if Private Emails are Public Record

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Judge holding gavel, close-up

    The California Supreme Court will decide if private emails and other electronic communications of government officials are public records open for inspection.

    The high court announced Friday that it would step in and settle a long-simmering debate over access to public employees' private communications on personal devices discussing government issues.

    Since the coming of email, activists and others in the state have been battling at all levels of government over whether public issues discussed on private devices with personal accounts are covered by the Public Records Act. Similar legal battles and political debates have sprung up across the country as well.

    While 26 states view the use of private emails for government business as public records, California and the rest have no clear rules or prevailing case law _ a source for continuing turmoil in state courts, according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

    The case the California Supreme Court agreed to consider Friday began when environmental activist Ted Smith was denied access to messages sent on private devices through private accounts of the San Jose mayor and City Council members. He filed a lawsuit and a trial judge ordered San Jose to turn over the messages. But an appeals court ruled in April that electronic communications sent and received by public officials on their own devices are not public records regardless of the topic.

    The city of San Jose is backed by the League of California Cities, which argues that beyond the legal issues, cities having to turn over messages from private devices would face significant administrative challenges in complying with records requests. City officials say they are concerned an adverse ruling will make them responsible to track the electronic communication on private devices of 5,000 city employees, creating potential compliance problems.

    Several news companies and free speech organizations have formally sided with the environmentalist's lawsuit seeking the records. They argue that exempting emails sent privately about government business runs contrary to the spirit of California's Open Records Act, passed in 1968. The advocates argue that policies and procedures can be developed to safeguard officials from embarrassing disclosures of their private lives.