Reporters Committee sues University of California for access to historic government documents

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | December 9, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a lawsuit against the Regents of the University of California over their refusal to grant access to important historical documents currently being held in a library at the University of California, Berkeley. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of both the Reporters Committee and Professor Stephen Bloom, a journalist, author, and professor of journalism at the University of Iowa who has written extensively about California’s history.

The Reporters Committee and Professor Bloom requested access under the California Public Records Act (PRA) to files relating to the historic Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime in California (the Commission Records), which are being stored at the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley. As stated in the lawsuit, the “Commission Records have much to tell the public about the conduct of California government agencies and officials at an important time in the State’s history.”

“The Commission was first appointed by then-Governor and future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Earl Warren in November of 1947. The Commission was charged with exploring organized crime in California, particularly crimes involving gambling, bribery of public officials, racketeering, horseracing, narcotics, illegal liquor sales, and prostitution. At the time, it was the most ambitious investigation into organized crime ever undertaken in the State. Chaired by retired U.S. Navy Admiral William H. Standley, the first incarnation of the Commission—sometimes referred to as the Standley Commission—issued its final report in November of 1950. Approximately one year later, in October of 1951, the Commission was convened for a second time, and chaired by retired Marine Corps. General LeRoy P. Hunt. The Hunt Commission issued its final report on or about May 11, 1953.”

UC-Berkeley denied the request of the Reporters Committee and Professor Bloom in its entirety. The University said that the Commission records were not public records under the PRA because they are “not related to the conduct of the University’s business”. It further asserted a laundry list of inapplicable exemptions it said authorized the complete withholding of the records, including the federal regulations of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Reporters Committee’s lawsuit challenges the denial, stating that “The University’s decision to deny Petitioners and the public access to these records is as legally baseless as it is contrary to the purposes of an academic institution.” It points out that, as the PRA makes clear, the fact that the Commission Records “relate to the conduct of the public’s business make them public records subject to the PRA.” It also states that, contrary to the requirements of the PRA, it appears that the University “made no effort, whatsoever, to even review the Commission Records prior to denying [RCFP and Professor Bloom’s] request.”

The lawsuit, which takes the form of a verified petition for writ of mandate, asks the court to order the Regents of the University of California to provide immediate access to the requested records.

The case information is The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Stephen G. Bloom v. The Regents of the University of California, No. RG14750683 (Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Alameda, filed Dec. 8, 2014).