Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Supreme Court case expands access rights, unlocks government data--including California Bar Association records

New Supreme Court case expands access rights, unlocks government data
Peter Scheer, Executive Director
First Amendment Coaltion

Dec. 2013 The First Amendment Coalition won a major victory last week in a test case about government transparency and public access to government data. I'm writing to share the good news and to use the occasion to ask you to make a year-end donation to FAC.

The California Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, established that no agency of government can exempt itself from the public's right to know. The State Bar—an arm of the judiciary that regulates lawyers—had argued that, since it is not covered by California's FOIA law, it has no obligation to make its records available for public review. The Court's answer: Sorry, but you do!

The Court said the Bar's records--specifically, Bar admissions data needed for academic research on affirmative action---are subject to a “common law” right of access. This right is not limited to records of official actions or records in court cases, but extends to any government records whose “disclosure would contribute significantly to public understanding of government activities,” the Court held.

This revived common law right of access could have a far-reaching impact, potentially providing an alternate remedy whenever state FOIA laws, for a variety of reasons, are of no avail.

But there's more . . .

The Court also held that government data can’t be withheld on privacy grounds as long as the data are “de-identified” by stripping out identifiers, controlling data cell sizes, and other steps that have become standard in professional research. The Court’s reasoning: There is no conflict between privacy rights and public access rights when the disclosed data can’t be linked to identifiable individuals.

This aspect of the Court's decision settles a central issue in debates over public access to, and use of, government data that pertain to private individuals---an issue that comes up in many contexts. The Court's holding is a powerful tool for unlocking government databases.

Our victory comes after a long battle with the State Bar—a battle that may drag on, unfortunately, if the Bar chooses to contest the procedures proposed by FAC and our co-plaintiff, UCLA Professor Richard Sander, for de-identifying the Bar's admissions data.

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