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Judge’s Ruling On Officials’ Private Emails, Texts Could Be Far-Reaching

Aired 3/21/13 on KPBS News.

The ruling could ultimately close a back channel used by governments across California to keep the public's business private.

A Santa Clara County judge has ordered officials in San Jose to make public their private emails and text messages about city business.

In recent years, civic activists and news reporters in the state have hit a snag when they've suspected they weren't getting all of the government communication they'd asked for in public records act requests. That's because officials at the state and local level figured out a strategy to avoid disclosing certain records and information, according to Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

"And that strategy is if they want to talk about government business and the matter is sensitive, something they don't want the public to know about, then the way to do that is by using personal email, personal text messaging services so that they can avoid the California Public Records Act," he said.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg's ruled this month that San Jose officials must hand over private emails and text messages containing city business. The ruling is not legally binding across the state. But Scheer says it could have broader consequences if appealed.

"Because I'm confident that decision will be affirmed on appeal and it will be affirmed in the published decision that will be more authoritative," he said.

Scheer added that California voters made a judgement when they approved the Public Records Act they want government to be conducted with maximum openness. San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle did not respond to a request for comment.

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