Blocking California’s sunshine: Proposed legislation would limit access to public information

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By Rebecca Bowe

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The California Public Records Act guarantees the right to be able to request government documents that are part of the public record. But proposed legislation heard today by the Assembly Judiciary Committee would restrict access in certain cases. The bill, titled AB 520 and introduced by Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto), would authorize a superior court to limit the scope of requests a member of the public can make if the court determines that the requestor is seeking information for an “improper purpose.” The text of the bill leaves the definition of “improper” open-ended, specifying only that it is “including, but not limited to, the harassment of a public agency or its employees.”

The bill is still in the early stages, but sunshine advocates are watching closely and weighing in. Californians Aware (CalAware), the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA), and the Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter have all come out against it. Letters of opposition pointed out that even without this new restriction in place, government agencies are often slow to release public records. “Every audit performed by Californians Aware, the California First Amendment Coalition, or CNPA member newspapers such as the Contra Costa Times or Stockton Record, has shown abysmal compliance with the law,” CNPA noted in a letter to Assemblywoman Carter.

Others characterized the proposed rule as an erosion of the principles of open government that are embodied in the state constitution. “The ultimate principle arguing against AB 520 is that like the right of speech itself … the right to obtain information found in public records is so fundamental to informed democracy that certain expressions of that right, while they may be deplored as an excess of license, must be tolerated as a cost of liberty,” CalAware’s opposition letter reads.

In the context of a new presidential administration that has professed a commitment to government transparency, and even delivered on it, AB 520 looks like a giant step backward.