California Supreme Court: Officials’ Private Account Emails Are Public Records

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that government-related communications sent by government employees on private devices are subject to public disclosure laws. The ruling represents a landmark decision that could significantly impact government transparency efforts around the state and how public officials communicate.

“Here, we hold that when a city employee uses a personal account to communicate about the conduct of public business, the writings may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act,” the court said in its opinion.

The case being decided came out of San Jose. Suspecting backroom dealing on the part of city officials, community activist Ted Smith had sought all records pertaining to a now completed development project downtown. Smith only got part of what he asked for; the communications sent by personal text and email were withheld by the city on the basis that communications sent on private devices were not subject to the California Public Records Act. He won in court, but the city appealed. San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle said the decision placed the privacy of government employees in jeopardy. In 2014, an appellate court ruled in the city’s favor and the case was appealed to the California Supreme Court.

View the court decision here. Notably, there are exceptions that court recognized.

Communications that are primarily personal, containing no more than incidental mentions of agency business, generally will not constitute public records. For example, the public might be titillated to learn that not all agency workers enjoy the company of their colleagues, or hold them in high regard. However, an employee‟s electronic musings about a colleague‟s personal shortcomings will often fall far short of being a “writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public‟s business.”

City News will continue to update this developing story.


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