The Public Records Act Allows Agencies to Direct a Requester to Information Already Posted on the Agency’s Website, Furthering the Efficient Use of School Resources

As of January 1, 2017, the California Public Records Act allows public agencies, including school districts to “direct[] a member of the public to the location on the Internet Web site where the public record is posted.” (Gov. Code, § 6253(f).) However, if the requesting party is unable to access or reproduce the online record, the agency must “promptly provide a copy of the public record.” Subdivision (f) was added to Government Code section 6253 by Assembly Bill 2853, in what legislators described as a “common sense measure” for cost-effective use of public school resources, and to offset requests for non-privileged school data from private companies seeking to use that data to market their own products.

In general, public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of a school district or other public agency, and every person has a right to inspect any public record within the limits and exemptions set forth in the CPRA. (See Gov. Code, § 6253.) In passing AB 2853, the Legislature announced, “It is much more efficient, both for the agency and the requester, to post records that have already been deemed disclosable online and refer any requests to those online records.” AB 2853 was in response to what its author, Assemblymember Mike Gatto, viewed as an “abuse” of the CPRA by private companies that engage in “corporate data mining” or request that school staff compile and disclose information such as student demographic or college preparation and placement numbers so the company can “rank and evaluate schools,” then sell the data to interested parties. Because this information is often available online and even on the school district’s website, “the private company could, and should, the author believes, do this work itself.” (Assem. Comm. on Judiciary, analysis of Assem. Bill No. 2853 (Reg. Sess. 2015-2016) April 8, 2016.)

Public agencies must nevertheless yield to the CPRA’s broad commitment to access public records. Government Code 6253, subdivision (f) requires an agency to accommodate a requester who lacks access to Internet or printing services by providing copies of records even if they are available online. Further, subdivision (f) appears to apply only to an agency’s records stored on its Internet website or its own online platform, not to records or compilations of data available elsewhere on the Internet.

A fundamental principle of the CPRA, that the purpose for which records are sought is immaterial to whether a request should be granted or denied, remains in place. Thus, members of the public, including private for-profit companies, can inspect a public agency’s records for any reason or without stating a reason.

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