The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 13 media organizations are urging the Supreme Court of California to review and reverse a Court of Appeal decision that would make it harder for journalists and researchers to access large sets of data under the state’s public records act.
The case involves researchers’ request for demographic information about California Bar Examination applicants from 1972 to 2008. The State Bar of California refused the request, citing privacy concerns. The researchers then amended the request and proposed multiple methods for anonymizing the data so that no one’s identity would be revealed. But the California Court of Appeal ruled that the State Bar did not have to provide the information because they claimed anonymizing the data constituted the creation of a new record, which the government is not required to do under the California Public Records Act.
In a friend-of-the-court letter, the media coalition argues that the Court of Appeal ruling would hinder reporters seeking government data, which is troubling given that journalists are “increasingly reliant on access to large datasets to gather news and inform the public.”
“By holding that the mere manipulation of data in a pre-existing database is equivalent to the ‘creation of a new record,’ particularly when the purpose is to anonymize the data to preserve individual privacy, the Court of Appeal’s decision will place the government’s increasingly large databases beyond public reach,” the coalition writes.
In addition to creating difficulties for journalists, this ruling would undermine the public’s right to access information concerning “the conduct of the people’s business.” It would also give agencies a ready-made excuse not to comply with public records requests when records are, or could be, stored as part of large datasets.
Access to information from government databases has been crucial in myriad stories that unearthed corruption and other abuses of power. For example, such data was essential in a series of investigative articles by journalists at California Watch, which revealed that Prime Healthcare Services — a California-based hospital chain — was obtaining fraudulent Medicare reimbursements. The series won California Watch the prestigious George Polk Award.
Read the full letter to the Supreme Court of California here.