On Friday, Santa Clara County judge James P. Kleinberg said the city of San Jose must disclose private text messages and other electronic communications sent and received by city officials on personal devices. The ruling has emerged from a lawsuit against San Jose, filed in 2009 by environmental activist Ted Smith.
Smith has argued that their refusal to provide access to such communications is a violation of the California Public Records Act, which requires disclosure of governmental records upon request. While San Jose doesn’t dispute the law’s jurisdiction over government accounts, communications on private devices is an entirely different matter, which has yet to be settled by law. Smith and his attorney James McManis were pleased by the ruling, claiming it will advance transparency and good governance. Peter Scheer, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based First Amendment Coalition also praised the judge’s decision, saying exceptions to disclosure rules on personal accounts would otherwise constitute a glaring, problematic loophole.
The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties have previously argued that such a mandate would be impractical since the government has no control over access and storage on personal accounts and devices. Furthermore, they say it raises serious privacy issues, as personal messages and those regarding city business may be intermingled. City Attorney Rick Doyle has serious concerns as to how the recent ruling would work out in practice. “You now have to worry about every employee when a request for records comes in,” Doyle said. “The Public Records Act has never been interpreted this broadly. The ruling goes too far.” Even Scheer acknowledged the many “practical problems” associated with such a mandate, but said the city would simply have to find a way to remedy them.
The ruling could have significant implications across the state, as other cities grapple with similar requests. Santa Clara has not yet said whether it will appeal the decision.
Read more about Judge Kleinberg’s decision here.
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