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Court of Appeals Could Limit Access to "Public Records"

By Howard Fischer

Phoenix, AZ – Any time a document is created on a computer, the machine stores information about it, including the date the file was formed, who was signed on to the computer and, sometimes, who made editing changes. However, when someone wants a copy of the document, the only thing the printer spits out is the text. A man seeking information from the Phoenix police department sought what's known as the metadata to determine if a document was really written on the date specified. But the Court of Appeals, in a split decision, said that wasn't part of the record and therefore not public. Attorney Dan Barr who represents the First Amendment Coalition said the ruling reflects a misunderstanding by the judges of the nature of records.

"The original record is, in fact, the electronic record, which includes the metadata. When you print it out on a piece of paper you're only getting part of that record," said Barr.

Judge Patricia Norris agrees with Barr. In her dissent she said her colleagues were creating a legal fiction that somehow the metadata is, "an electronic orphan separate from the document itself." Appellate Judge Michael Brown who wrote the decision said his reading of state law convinces him the Legislature intended only for that paper record to be public. He said if lawmakers intend something else they should amend the statute.