The Arizona Supreme Court on Oct. 29 unanimously agreed that Arizona public records request statutes apply to electronic data-entry records and are not limited to government documents subject to copy and inspection under state law.
The court’s opinion in Lake v. City of Phoenix interprets public records laws to include so-called “metadata” – embedded electronic trails that denote items such as date, time and the manner of creation of records entered into public computers. The ruling supersedes previous trial and appellate court rulings in the dispute.
The controversy over government-held metadata stems from a rebuffed records request filed by Phoenix police officer David Lake, who sought to examine performance-review notes and records created by his boss to further an administrative complaint and federal lawsuit that alleged employment discrimination.
Presented with paper copies of his superior’s notes, Lake, according to court filings, became suspicious the documents had been backdated in an attempt to conceal exactly when and how records of his performance had been logged into city records.
The officer filed a subsequent records request seeking “the true creation date, the access date, the access dates for each time it was accessed, including who accessed the file as well as print dates,” only to be refused by city officials.
Writing for the court in a 12-page opinion, Justice Scott Bales brushed off the city’s claims that providing metadata would create an “administrative nightmare” and found that electronic data is subject to the same disclosure requirements as paper documents.
“It would be illogical, and contrary to the policy of openness underlying the public records laws, to conclude that public entities can withhold information embedded in an electronic document, such as the date of creation, which they would be required to produce the same information if it were written manually on a paper public record,” wrote Bales.
Lake’s case garnered attention from both government and media sources. Support for the city of Phoenix’s position was filed by the Attorney General’s Office and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, a lobbying organization for 90 Arizona municipalities, which echoed concern that complying with requests for metadata would be overly burdensome.
Lake was backed by the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Arizona Newspapers Association. The ~Arizona Capitol Times~ maintains membership in all three of the organizations.
The Associated Press also filed an amicus brief, urging the Arizona Supreme Court to reverse to Arizona Court of Appeals opinion released in January that concluded metadata was not subject to public records law.
Stephen Doig, a journalism professor who wrote an appendix for the amicus brief filed by the newspaper organizations, heralded the court’s “clear understanding” of the importance of making hard data and accompanying information available to the public.
“I’m delighted that the Arizona Supreme Court recognized that the spirit of the Arizona public records law is met by making sure that all of the pieces necessary for understanding public records are part of the public record,” he said.
Doig, who teaches computer-assisted reporting at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and shares a Pulitzer Prize for reporting with the ~Miami Herald~, said the opinion minimizes the risk of government agencies implementing strategies and reasons to refuse public records requests.