(Nov. 17, 2009) The Supreme Court of Arizona has held that metadata – “information describing the history, tracking, or management of an electronic document” – can be subject to disclosure under the state's public records laws.
A police officer filing an employment discrimination complaint made a public records request under the Arizona public records law against the City of Phoenix for the metadata associated with his supervisor's notes, which had been prepared on a computer, in order to find out when the file had been created, printed, and accessed. The city claimed the metadata was not a public record and denied the request, and the trial and intermediate appellate courts agreed.
The Arizona Supreme Court reversed. It held that the definition of a public record was to be read broadly, in a manner consistent with the public records law's goals of government openness. The court found that the lower courts erred in viewing the metadata as an independent public record when it should be considered part of the underlying document. The court stated:
It would be illogical, and contrary to the policy of openness underlying the public records laws, to conclude that public entities can withhold information embedded in an electronic document, such as the date of creation, while they would be required to produce the same information if it were written manually on a paper public record.
As most other states and the federal government have comparable public information laws, this decision could be influential if similar situations arise elsewhere. (Lake v. City of Phoenix, No. CV-09-0036-PR (Ariz. Oct. 29, 2009), available at http://www.supreme.state.az.us/opin/pdf2009/CV090036PR.pdf.)