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Arizona Supreme Court rules electronic data is matter of public record

[JURIST] The Arizona Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that data embedded in electronic versions of public records is part of the public record, and thus accessible through a records request. The court ruled in favor of David Lake, a sergeant with the Phoenix police department, who had requested access to public records regarding his job performance. When the physical documents raised Lake's suspicion that they may have been altered, he requested access to the electronic forms to assess creation and editing dates. The city denied Lake's request, and he filed suit. In holding that this electronic, or "metadata," is part of that public record, the court overruled both lower courts and their interpretation of the issue, saying:

The pertinent issue is not whether metadata considered alone is a public record. Instead, the question is whether a "public record" maintained in an electronic format includes not only the information normally visible upon printing the document but also any embedded metadata. ... The metadata in an electronic document is part of the underlying document; it does not stand on its own. When a public officer uses a computer to make a public record, the metadata forms part of the document as much as the words on the page.

The immediate impact of the ruling, aside from Lake's suit, may be to increase access [Arizona Republic report] and reduce the cost of producing public records for review.

While metadata has a number of different meanings, in the context most applicable to public records, administrative metadata [NISO backgrounder, PDF] refers to, "information to help manage a resource, such as when and how it was created, file type and other technical information, and who can access it." Perhaps the most visible case regarding metadata prior to the current was the 2005 case of Shirley Williams, who had sued Sprint/United Management Company for access to records in regards to an employment suit. In issuing an order for production of documents, Judge David Waxse of the US District Court for the District of Kansas threatened sanctions [opinion, PDF] against Sprint/United if it could not provide a legitimate reason for "scrubbing" electronic documents of metadata.

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