SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Text messages and emails about government business sent from officials’ private phones are public records that the people have the right to see, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Writing for the unanimous seven-member court, Justice Carol Corrigan said such communications should be disclosed under the California Public Records Act, otherwise public employees or politicians might be encouraged to hide important or possibly incriminating discussions behind a private phone or email account.
“We are aware of no California law requiring that public officials or employees use only government accounts to conduct public business. If communications sent through personal accounts were categorically excluded from CPRA, government officials could hide their most sensitive, and potentially damning, discussions in such accounts,” Corrigan wrote in the 24-page ruling.
The ruling stems from environmental activist Ted Smith’s lawsuit against the city of San Jose in 2009.
Smith requested 32 types of public records – including emails, text messages and voicemails – sent or received on private devices by then-mayor Chuck Reed, San Jose City Council members and their staff regarding the use of public money for the former mayor’s real estate project.
A Santa Clara Superior Court judge sided with Smith and ordered disclosure, a ruling later reversed by the Sixth Appellate District.
Smith was then joined by McClatchy Newspapers, the California Broadcasters Association, Los Angeles Times Communications, and other news outlets in his appeal to the California Supreme Court.
Thursday’s ruling reversed the appellate court’s ruling and remanded the case to state court.
In a phone interview, Smith’s attorney James McManis hailed the decision’s importance for reporters, unions and the public.
“It was a very strong statement that the Constitution and the statute mean what they say and that records – be they emails, tweets, postings to Facebook – if they concern the public’s business they have to be produced,” he said. “And this idea that if they’re on somebody’s device we don’t have to produce, the court has laid that to rest.”
But the court’s clarification of the law also places a new burden on public agencies and employees that could lead to a whole host of legal questions.
“Clearly there was a strong direction to public agencies to adopt some sort of policy on how to handle records on private devices, and public officials and employees need to figure out how they are going to comply with these policies,” said Ruthann Ziegler, a principal with Meyers Nave in Sacramento who specializes in public law and the Public Records Act.
“The good news is that for employees and officials, the court does not say you must turn over your device for a public agency to review, but the public agency has to make as clear as possible what the records are that are being sought and what the breadth of information the employee or official must look for. The challenge is under the Public Records Act, if a requesting party sues and wins, it is mandatory award of attorney’s fees against the public agency in favor of the requesting party.”
This could have serious implications for records that are requested and withheld unintentionally, for instance if a public employee or official leaves out one record out of a thousand.