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To protect and serve the common interests of its newsmedia members, to help members inform and thereby strengthen their communities, and to foster the highest ideals, ethics and traditions of journalism, a free press and the news profession.

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The California Public Records Act

The California Public Records Act gives the public the right to access government records. This right is also enshrined in California’s constitution, Article 1, Section 3(b)(1). The CPRA is an incredibly powerful news gathering tool that allows journalists to ask for any documents held by the government. While there are exemptions to the CPRA, these exemptions are not always asserted properly. That’s why it can be helpful to contact CNPA—we will let you know if the records you seek should be provided.

Sample Cal Public Records Act Letter

Download your copy of the Sample California Public Records Act Request Letter.

Chief Executive
Name of Agency
Subject: Request to Inspect and Copy Public Records

Dear _____________:

This letter is to request access to records in the possession of (Name of agency and/or department, division, etc.) for the purpose of inspection and copying pursuant to the California Public Records Act (Government Code Section 6250 et seq.) and Article I, Section 3 of the California Constitution.

The information that I ask to inspect is as follows: (Describe the record as specifically as possible, including if known, the form in which it is recorded – writings, electronic data, maps, photographs, audio or video tapes etc. – and, if known, the designation of the file or register where it is to be found. You need not state any reason for your request, unless the request is for the names and addresses of private individuals held by a state agency, in which case you should specify that your purpose is the gathering of newsworthy facts by a publisher as provided in Sections 1798.3 (j) and 1798.60 of the Civil Code).

This request reasonably describes (an) identifiable record(s) or information to be produced from that record. If you are unable comply with this request because you believe it is not focused or effective, California Government Code Section 6253.1(a) requires you to (1) Assist me in identifying the records and information that are responsive to my request or to the purpose of my request; (2) Describe the information technology and physical location in which the records exist; and (3) Provide me with suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for denying access to the records or information I am seeking.

Pursuant to Government Code Section 6253(b), I ask that you make the record(s) “promptly available,” for inspection and copying, based on my payment of “fees covering direct costs of duplication, or statutory fee, if applicable.” I believe that no express provisions of law exist that exempt the record(s) from disclosure. As you determine whether this request seeks copies of disclosable public records, be mindful that Article I, Section 3 (b)(2) of the California Constitution requires you to broadly construe a statute, court rule, or other authority if it furthers the right of access to the information I have requested and to narrowly construe a statute, court rule, or other authority if it limits my right of access.

If a portion of the information I have requested is exempt from disclosure by express provisions of law, Government Code Section 6253(a) additionally requires segregation and deletion of that material in order that the remainder of the information may be released. If you determine that an express provision of law exists to exempt from disclosure all or a portion of the material I have requested, Government Code Section 6253(c) requires notification to me of the reasons for the determination not later than 10 days from your receipt of this request.

Government Code Section 6253(d) prohibits the use of the 10-day period, or any provisions of the Public Records Act “to delay access for purposes of inspecting public records.”

To expedite compliance, I am sending a copy of this request to the office of your legal adviser.

Thank you for your timely attention to my request.

Sincerely,

S/_____________

cc: Name and title of agency’s legal adviser

NOTES ON PUBLIC RECORDS ACT REQUEST LETTER

The sample letter is to be used only as an example. It is written in rather formal language, and cites the law upon which your request is based. You may wish to send the letter, as written, depending on the need to educate the agency, or if you have already reached a point where your relationship with the agency might be characterized as ‘adversarial.’ However, a good reporter knows that it takes more than the assertion of rights under the law to create and maintain relationships that foster access. Therefore, depending on your relationship with the agency, you may wish to edit your letter to delete citations of statutes or the courtesy copy to the agency’s legal adviser, or to eliminate entirely the educational sections of the letter when it is clear that the agency knows the law.

The Ralph M. Brown Act

The Ralph M. Brown Act requires government agencies to do the public’s business in public. That means that your city council or school board must allow the public to attend all meetings, and to comment at these meetings. The Brown Act also requires these meetings be announced ahead of time, typically three days. The notice must include agenda items detailing each issue to be discussed at the meeting. Journalists covering local politics monitor these agendas to learn if newsworthy items will be discussed. Failure to properly notice issues could result in the reversal of any action by an agency. CNPA can help you determine if the Brown Act is violated, and what remedies might be available to the public for such violation.

Sample Brown Act Letter

Download your copy of the Sample Demand for Cure or Correction; Alleged Violation of Brown Act Letter.

(Send registered mail, return receipt requested)

Presiding Officer, Members

Name of Legislative Body

Name of Local Agency

Dear_________________:

This letter is to call your attention to what I believe was a substantial violation of a central provision of the Ralph M. Brown Act and Article I, Section 3 of the California Constitution, which may jeopardize the finality of the action taken by (name of legislative body and local agency).

The nature of the violation is as follows. In its meeting of (date), the (name of legislative body) took action to (describe the action taken, specifying the proposal and the manner in which it was acted upon, i.e. by either a formal vote, an “approval in concept” or some other expression of a consensus that the body would or would not act in a certain manner in the future).

The action taken was not in compliance with the Brown Act and Article I, Section 3 of the California Constitution because (specify one or both) it occurred as the culmination of a discussion in closed session of a matter which the Act does not permit to be discussed in closed session (and/or) there was no adequate notice to the public on the posted agenda for the meeting that the matter acted upon would be discussed, and there was no finding of fact by the (name of the legislative body) that urgent action was necessary on a matter unforeseen at the time the agenda was posted.

In the event it appears to you that the conduct of the (name of the legislative body) specified herein did not amount to the taking of action, I call your attention to Government Code Section 54952.6, which defines “action taken” for purposes of the Act very expansively.

As you are aware, the Brown Act allows the legal remedy of judicial invalidation of illegally taken action. Pursuant to Government Code Section 54960.1, I demand that the (name of the legislative body) cure or correct the illegally taken action as follows: (specify whatever corrective action you believe necessary to redress the illegality by providing the public with access to the information acquisition, deliberative process and opportunity to comment of which it was deprived. Examples might include the formal and explicit withdrawal from any commitment made, coupled with a disclosure at a subsequent meeting of the reasons why individual members of the legislative body took the positions that they did, with the full opportunity for informed comment by members of the public at the same meeting, notice of which is properly included on the posted agenda. In some cases informed comment might require public access to any and all documents in the possession of the public agency related to the action taken, with copies available to the public on request at the offices of the agency and also at the meeting at which reconsideration of the matter is to occur).

As provided by Section 54960.1, you have 30 days from the receipt of this demand to either cure or correct the challenged action, or inform me of your decision not to do so. If you fail to cure or correct as demanded, I am entitled to seek judicial invalidation of the action pursuant to Section 54960.1, in which case I would seek the award of court costs and reasonable attorney fees pursuant to Section 54960.5.

Sincerely,

S/____________

cc: Name and title of agency’s legal adviser

The California Shield Law

The California Shield Law allows journalists to protect confidential sources, and it prevents lawyers from hauling them into court to testify about their news gathering activities. Different rules apply depending on the context of each situation, but whenever someone tries to force a reporter to turn over her notes or a photographer to release his unpublished photos, the Shield Law could apply. Often, authority figures rely on the assumption that a journalist won’t know this law, but don’t be intimidated. If you face this situation, state that you believe the Shield Law applies and get CNPA on the phone to talk you through how to proceed.

legal helpline

At CNPA we are here to help with your news coverage and answer questions ranging from how to access the information you need to access to local government actions to anything else your reporters come across. Most common questions involve Public Records Act requests, local government actions, public notices, or access to police records. It’s important to note that we give general legal advice and make sure you know what the law is, if you have a question like approval of an article or a threat of litigation, we suggest you retain or ask your own counsel.

The legal helpline is run by our Staff Attorney, Brittney Barsotti, who prior to attending law school spent time on the ground as a reporter.

You can submit questions through our online submission below, by email helpline@cnpa.com or by phone. Please be sure to include your deadline so we can get back to you.

email for support

The CNPA Legal Team can be reached directly by email.

helpline@cnpa.com

call for support

Staff Attorney, Brittney Barsotti, can be reached directly by phone.

(916) 288-6006

submit your question

Submit your questions through our online form.
Please note, that while the CNPA legal team makes every effort to respond within your given timeframe, we can make no guarantees.


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