Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
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The Supreme Court of Arizona held that the City of Phoenix was required to disclose metadata (electronic information concerning the history of an electronic document) pursuant to Arizona’s freedom of information law. The City did not contest that the content of the documents constituted a public record, but argued that the metadata did not qualify as a public record subject to disclosure requirements. The Supreme Court reasoned that the metadata in an electronic document is part of the underlying document; it does not stand on its own and when an official uses a computer to make a public record, the metadata forms part of the document as much as words on a page.
This analysis was contributed by Right2Info.org.
Mr. Lake, a police officer, applied to the City of Phoenix for disclosure of the metadata attached to electronic documents regarding his work performance prepared by his supervisor. Metadata is a set of electronic data that provide information describing the history of an electronic document such as the creation date, how often the document was accessed and when.
Mr. Lake made this request in the context of an employment discrimination lawsuit in which he suspected that the City had backdated the paper copies provided. The City did not contest that the content of the documents constituted a public record, but contended that the metadata did not qualify as a public record subject to disclosure requirements. The Maricopa County Superior Court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the City.
The Supreme Court had to determine whether the relevant Arizona law, Arizona Revised Statutes §39-121 (2001), applied to metadata. It held that where public records are maintained in electronic format, the electronic information, including the metadata, is subject to public disclosure.
The Court said that the metadata were “part of the underlying document . . . as much as the words on the page.” The Court called it “illogical” and in conflict with the law’s “policy of openness” to require that information handwritten on a document would be subject to public disclosure whereas the same information electronically embedded could be withheld. The Court explicitly rejected the City’s assertion that this ruling would create an “administrative nightmare”
By way of background, the Court referred to state law which does not define “public record” but obliges public entities and officers to “maintain all records . . . reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities . . .” It also referred to the case of Carlson v. Pima County, 141 Ariz. 487, 490, 687 P.2d 1242, 1245 (1984) in which the court stated that all records required to be made and maintained by the state law are to be available for inspection, subject to the official’s discretion to deny or restrict access where recognition of the interests of privacy, confidentiality, or the best interest of the state in carrying out its legitimate activities outweigh the general policy of open access.
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