The California Supreme Court handed down a unanimous judgment that any electronic correspondence sent by government workers is considered public information even when received or stored via personal device. The court remarked that any other stance would mean that city officials could evade the eyes of the public by simply changing devices or e-mail accounts.
This ruling is seen as the closure to a government loophole long thought to keep government secrets concealed. Going forward, employees within the Californian government will be unable to dodge investigations into accountability by declaring that such an intrusion would violate their right to privacy.
The impetus for this legislation occurred in 2009, when a San Jose man sought to learn the details behind development within the downtown area. Ted Smith, a retired lawyer familiar with nonprofits, believed that some of San Jose’s officials were abusing their personal phones and e-mail to discuss matters with then-mayor Tom McEnery; McEnery had been lent $6 million in donations from San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency. By June, Smith has requested all public records pertinent to the officials involved with the redevelopment effort. San Jose responded by revealing all information except for voicemails, e-mails and texts sent from or to private electronics of any government employees, arguing that “CPRA” did not extend to private correspondence.
Smith countered with the idea that all communications involving city business should be public information, regardless of its source. San Jose owns an excess of 4,000 cellular phones for employee use; most officials of smaller Californian agencies tend to use their personal devices. In light of the court’s ruling, San Jose will need to draft policies over the collection of public information from private sources. The court only requires a “reasonable effort” be made in the search, leaving the exact approach to local agencies.
While initial efforts were made after Smith’s August 2009 case, requiring elected officials to self-report any communications on private devices; Smith believed that the rules should extend to all city employees. As things now stand, all requested documents from city workers’ devices and social media must substantially relate to public interests.