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CA Supreme Court will decide if text sent by government employees is public record

by Natalie Chudnovsky | AirTalk®

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A man reads a text message on his mobile phone while an aircraft taxis at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images

If a government employee sends a business-related text from their iPhone, is it, legally speaking, a matter of public record?

That’s the question posed by a case heard by the California Supreme Court last month, and to be decided early March. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, this began almost eight years ago when activist Ted Smith filed for a public records request for communications between San Jose’s former mayor and officials involved in a development project. Smith suspected shady dealings, and the city handed over records – though not all of them, arguing that communications sent by government employees on private devices are not covered by the California Public Records Act.

Now, California’s top court must decide how to negotiate the privacy of public employees with transparency in public business dealings. On the one hand, ruling that these communications are public record could prevent corruption. But including these communications in the Public Records Act could present practical challenges. What constitutes a business related communication? Who gets to examine these voicemails, emails and texts to determine which are public versus private?

We debate the case and its implications, on AirTalk.


James McManis,  trial lawyer in San Jose, representing Ted Smith, who is the petitioner in this case

Rick Doyle, San Jose city attorney  

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