In California members of the public have the right to obtain and inspect government records upon request. Pursuant to California Government Code section 6253.9, any member of the public seeking records can do so, and the agency has an obligation to make the information available in any electronic format in which it holds the information. When the California legislature passed the California Public Records Act (“the CPRA”) in 1968, their reasoning was simple: “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” Specifically, the CPRA was enacted to 1) safeguard the accountability of the government to the public; 2) promote maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations; and 3) explicitly acknowledge the principle that secrecy is antithetical to a democratic system of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Gov. Code § 6253.9 et seq.; Stats 1968, Ch. 1473; CBS, Inc. v. Block (1986) 42 Cal.3d 646, 651-652; 52 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen 136; San Gabriel Tribune v. Superior Court (1983) 143 Cal.App.3d 762, 771-772.
Generally, public records are broadly defined as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of a public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristic.” Gov. Code§ 6252(e). The CPRA offers two different rights of access. The first is the right to inspect any public records at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency, except in limited situations defined below. The second right is to the prompt availability of copies of public records.
Except with respect to public records deemed exempt from disclosure by the express provisions of law, each state or local agency shall make the records promptly available to any person upon the payment of fees which cover the direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable. Exemptions under the CPRA are set forth under Government Code Section 6254 and are specific to certain types of disclosures that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, like employees personnel records. However, under Government Code Section 6255, a general exemption exists where “the public interest served by not making the record public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.” Gov. Code § 6255(a).
Despite these relatively narrow exemptions, it cannot be overstated how much importance California has placed on a citizen’s right to get information and hold their government accountable to the public interest. As President James Madison once put it: “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”