In California, as in many states, the public has a right to request public records—government documents that reveal information such as what decisions public officials make, what actions they take, and how they spend our money. But what happens when a government agency starts deleting records faster than a member of the public can ask for them?
EFF has joined a coalition of government transparency and environmental justice organizations in supporting a lawsuit against the County of San Diego, which created a policy to destroy all emails automatically after 60 days unless an employee flags the emails for preservation. In a joint letter, we ask the California Supreme Court to grant a hearing in the case Golden Door Properties, LLC, et al. v. Superior Court, arguing that these short retention periods thwart the government transparency measures enshrined in California law and the state’s Constitution.
“One of the bedrock principles of good government is that an informed electorate, with knowledge of the actions of its government officials, is essential to a functioning democracy,” the authors write in the letter. They add: “The email destruction policy at issue in this case contravenes this principle by allowing the government unilaterally and selectively to purge the public record of officials’ correspondence, ensuring that any later attempt to review or scrutinize that government’s actions will be woefully unreliable and incomplete.”
The case arose from a California Public Records Act request related to environmental review of a land-use project under the California Environmental Quality Act. However, the issues extend far beyond land use and natural resources, as agencies around the state are enacting similar policies, some with retention periods as short as 30 days.
Representing the interests of environmental organizations, the letter is co-signed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Planning and Conservation League, and the Environmental Law Foundation. EFF, the First Amendment Project, Californians Aware, and the Freedom of the Press Foundation lent our support as experts in leveraging public records laws and defending the integrity of these open government measures.
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Author: Dave Maass