The ‘really dangerous’ precedent for reclaiming public records

“NO TAKE-BACKS” is a common rule on the elementary school playground. It is not the rule when it comes to public records in the state of California, where public agencies can and do try to claw back documents after they’ve released them, and where one school district recently asked a court to award it $450,000 from a citizen who had obtained records the district later withdrew.

The California Public Records Act states that if a record is released to the public, then a government agency can no longer claim that record should be exempt from future disclosures—a common clause in state and federal public records laws. But in 2016, the Supreme Court of California ruled in Ardo v. City of Los Angeles that if a public agency inadvertently releases a document that should have been exempt, it can demand that the recipient give the document back, or else destroy it.

A bill currently working its way through the California Legislature, Senate Bill 1244, sought to change that. The author, Democrat Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, wrote the bill so that it would limit almost any ability for public agencies to take back government records. Had it become law in its original form, news organizations would no longer face the risk, however remote, that a public agency could sue them to take backs records it had released. Read more…