Court: California Court of Appeal
Date Filed: May 10, 2021
Update: On July 16, 2021, the California Court of Appeal denied the news organizations’ petition. The court held that the county of San Diego properly withheld the location of COVID-19 outbreaks under a catch-all exception of the state’s Public Records Act because the government’s interest in redaction outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure. The news organizations then sought review by the California Supreme Court. On Sept. 24, 2021, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of news media organizations filed a letter with the state’s highest court asking it to grant review of the case. The Reporters Committee’s friend-of-the-court letter argues that the Court of Appeal erred in finding that the opinion testimony of a county public health officer, without more, was sufficient to carry the county’s burden to show a clear overbalance on the side of confidentiality. It also argues that the Court of Appeal failed to properly balance the significant public interest in disclosure against the county’s speculative claims of a chilling effect, and provides examples of how disclosure of location-based outbreak data has led to valuable reporting about the spread of COVID-19.
Background: In 2020, Voice of San Diego, KPBS Public Broadcasting and The San Diego Union Tribune submitted California Public Records Act requests to the county of San Diego seeking location-based outbreak data related to the spread of COVID-19 in the San Diego area.
The county denied the requests, claiming that information contained in the records was confidential pursuant to a state health regulation and thus exempt from disclosure. It also claimed that release of the records might chill reporting of COVID-19 data to the county, thus making the information exempt from disclosure under a separate California statute.
The news organizations sought an order for release of the requested records in the Superior Court of California, but it was denied for the reasons articulated by the county. Their petition for extraordinary writ in the Court of Appeal was also summarily denied. The California Supreme Court, in response to the news organizations’ petition for review, issued an order transferring the case to the Court of Appeal and directing it to issue an order to show cause as to why the news organizations’ request should not be granted.
Our Position: The Court of Appeal should issue an order releasing the records requested by the news organizations.
- The requested records implicate no exemptions to the California Public Records Act nor any other bar to disclosure.
- The public interest in disclosure outweighs any interest in nondisclosure. Access to location outbreak data provides the public with essential health and safety information that can help reduce the spread of the disease in California.
Quote: “As evidenced by examples from across the country, public access to the Records will enable the news media to report meaningful information about the spread of the novel coronavirus which will, in turn, allow Californians to make more informed decisions during this ongoing public health crisis — which, for individuals who are immunosuppressed or have another pre-existing condition, can be the difference between life and death.”
Related: The Reporters Committee tracks public records and open meetings laws in every state. To learn more about our work in this area and to see what public records exemptions look like in your state, check out our Open Government Guide.