Bill aimed at protecting CPRA requesters passes to assembly

A CNPA sponsored measure to protect public records requesters who are hauled into court was voted 38-0 off the Senate floor this week. It will next be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

SB 1244, by Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) , seeks to mitigate a chilling trend by public agencies in the state that threaten lawsuits and sue public records requesters.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported on the bill, which ensures that an agency who sues a requester for records, in an act which will likely constitute a prior restraint, cannot then seek fees from the requester for that litigation.

When the legislature drafted the California Public Records Act, it intended that the mandatory fee award is in the law to protect the requester, not a public agency that is technically the “plaintiff” in a dispute. SB 1244 makes this clarification in statute.

However, SB 1244 does not fix the larger problem–the troubling practice of agencies threatening and suing requesters for the return of records, a practice ratified by the state supreme court in 2016.

As CJR reported, this is troubling: “The inescapable problem is that reversing a public records disclosure means telling people they can’t share information the government legally and voluntarily gave them.” “Anytime you have the government telling a citizen they can’t legally communicate information they legally obtained, that’s prior restraint, and it’s really un-American.”

As a result of California newspapers and the public are at risk of bullying and even litigation from agencies simply by requesting and receiving public records. Wieckowski told CJR that he would continue working on the issue, and planned to address the broader problem next year with additional legislation.