Arizona Supreme Court rules electronic data is public

Ansley Schrimpf | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 29, 2009

The Arizona Supreme Court today ruled that metadata – information about the history, tracking and management of an electronic document – is subject to the state’s public records law.

Several national media organizations supported Phoenix police officer David Lake’s challenge that the city improperly denied his 2006 public records request for the metadata about documents he had previously requested and received. The city refused Lake’s request, arguing the metadata did not fall within the state’s definition of public records, which a court established in 1952, long before the advent of electronic documents.

In a unanimous opinion released today, the state’s high court held, “If a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, then the electronic version, including any embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure.”

David J. Bodney, a lawyer who helped write a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of The Associated Press, Gannett Co., The E.W. Scripps Company, and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the state Supreme Court decision is a victory for public access.

“The decision is important because we live in an electronic age where maintenance and preservation of public records in electronic format is quickly becoming the norm,” Bodney said. “Public bodies should not be permitted to withhold that information from public inspection.”

The case – Lake v. City of Phoenix – began after Lake filed an administrative complaint and federal lawsuit alleging employment discrimination. He also filed a records request for a supervisor’s notes, which he received, read and suspected had been backdated. So he requested the documents’ metadata, which can include information about a file’s creation, edit dates and authorship. After the city denied his request, Lake sued. Two lower courts sided with the city, including a division of the state’s appellate court, which ruled 2-to-1 against the metadata’s release in January.

That decision’s strong dissent caught the media’s attention earlier this year, Bodney said. His clients filed a brief “to underscore the importance of interpreting the Arizona Public Records law as the legislature intended it – broadly.”

Bodney said the state Supreme Court’s decision may be the first one of its kind for a state high court.

The Arizona decision could be persuasive in other states, including Washington, where the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a metadata case this term. The City of Shoreline is appealing a 2008 a Washington appeals court's decision that metadata is a public record in O’Neill v. Shoreline.

A second group of media organizations – including the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Arizona Newspapers Association – also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Lake case.