Public Records for "Commercial Purposes"? Washington Court of Appeals Addresses Another Dispute - Rejects Union's Constitutional Privacy Argument

Earlier this year, Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals determined that the Freedom Foundation’s public records request for names and contact information of home healthcare workers was not a request for “commercial purposes.” SEIU Healthcare 775NW v. Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., 193 Wn. App. 377, 377 P.3d 214, review denied, 186 Wn.2d 1016 (2016). This week, the Court addressed a similar dispute over the Foundation’s request for names of childcare providers in Washington’s “Family, Friends and Neighbors” program and their “state contact” information. SEIU Local 925 v. Freedom Found., No. 48522-2-II (Dec. 20, 2016).

Washington’s Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”), prohibits disclosure of “lists of individuals requested for commercial purposes.” RCW 42.56.070(9). The Foundation claimed that its purpose was to notify childcare providers of their right to refrain from union membership and fee payments. SEIU countered that the Foundation’s fundraising materials specifically mention its use of the lists of provider names. Largely reiterating its prior holdings, the Court held that the Foundation’s purpose was not a commercial one because the Foundation does not intend to general revenue or financial benefit from the direct use of the information. Financial benefit garnered from mentioning the provider information to publicize the Foundation’s work was too attenuated to be a direct use.
 
Also in line with its prior decision, the Court rejected SEIU’s “linkage argument” – that information can become non-disclosable if it could somehow lead to other private information being tracked down from other sources. While property addresses might be the same as the locations where children live or receive childcare, the Foundation’s request did not seek the names and addresses of any specific children. The Court would not look to what information could be discovered beyond the four corners of the records requested to determine if an exemption applied.
 
The Court next considered SEIU’s argument that the privacy protections in article I, section 7 of the Washington constitution prohibited the release of the requested information. The Court rejected this claim, finding that (1) SEIU did not meet its burden of proving that a person’s name and contact information were historically treated as “private affairs” under the constitution; (2) representations by a state agency that information would be kept confidential did not give constitutional protection to such information; (3) the situation was not analogous to the home privacy issues implicated by warrantless searches of a home; and (4) the PRA provided “valid authority of law” to obtain information provided to participate in a public program. The trial court therefore did not err by denying a permanent injunction on the basis of SEIU’s constitutional and statutory arguments.
 

No Freedom for Executives? Freedom Foundation Sues Washington Governor Christine Gregoire Over Documents Withheld Under "Executive Privilege"

The Libertarian group Freedom Foundation has recently filed suit against Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, alleging that the Governor withheld public records under an “Executive Privilege” exemption not found in the text of Washington’s Public Records Act (“PRA”), 42.56 RCW.

According to the Foundation’s website, the suit was commenced after a member of the Foundation requested documents from the Governor’s Office in April 2010, including records dealing with “medical marijuana legislation, Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement proposals, and the Columbia River hydro system.” The complaint seeks production of the requested records (some of which were withheld or redacted), attorneys’ fees and penalties for violating the PRA. The complaint only addresses the Governor’s response to the April 2010 request; however the Freedom Foundation has also alleged that since 2007, Gregoire has used the executive privilege 500 times in efforts to withhold records.

Under Washington’s PRA, public agency records must be made available to the public upon request unless they're covered by a specific exemption, identified in the PRA itself, or covered by other applicable Federal and State laws. See WAC 44-14-010. There is a strong policy in favor of disclosure, and exemptions are construed narrowly. See Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y. v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 262, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) (“PAWS II”). Although there are many exemptions listed in the PRA, the statute does not contain a general “executive privilege” exemption. Nor is the executive privilege listed as an exemption recognized by the Washington State Attorney General in its Model Rules on Public Disclosure.  See WAC 44-14-06002

According to a recent article in the Seattle Times, the Governor's Office says that the source of the executive privilege is the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers. As the Times reports, there has only been one definitive Washington court case addressing executive privilege, where a Snohomish County trial court made an oral ruling in favor of the exemption. However, in that case the executive privilege was raised in the context of documents requested in litigation, and used in conjunction with the deliberative process exemption, which prevents disclosure of records used as part of the policy and decision-making processes during the time such decisions are being made. PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 256. It is important to note, however, that after a decision is finalized, the records may be subject to disclosure. Id.

A Washington court may find that the deliberative process exemption applies to at least some of the records Freedom Foundation alleges were withheld in April 2010, particularly if the records reflect ongoing decision and policy making within the Governor’s Office. However, it remains to be seen whether the courts will directly address the issues of executive privilege and separation of powers. On the other hand, facing a parallel separation of powers issue in 1986, the Washington Supreme Court held that the judiciary is not included within the reach of the Public Records Act. Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300, 730 P.2d 54 (1986).

Clash of Principles: Academic Freedom v. Freedom of Information

The March 30 edition of the New York Times reports that a research group in Michigan has made a public records request of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University for any e-mails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil, including any e-mails with reference to Rachel Maddow – the MSNBC talk show host.

Greg Schulz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors is quoted as asserting “We think this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”

In the State of Washington, however, the issue of academic freedom v. freedom of information has long been decided in favor of the freedom of information. In 1994 the Washington Supreme Court held that documents regarding research proposals for primate experiments that didn’t fall within specific statutory exemptions were subject to disclosure under the State’s Public Records Act – despite the contention of the University of Washington that academic freedom protected those records from disclosure. Progressive Animal Rights Society (PAWS) v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 243, 884 P.2d 592 (1994).

In PAWS, the Washington Supreme Court directly addressed the University’s argument that “the grant proposal should be exempt in its entirety because disclosure of a researcher’s preliminary ideas violates a putative constitutional privilege of academic freedom.” Rejecting that argument, the Court held that neither the popular initiative that first adopted Washington’s Public Record Act nor the legislature in later amendments had created an exemption from the Public Records Act for academics. Further the Court noted that, “Even assuming there were plausible grounds for doing so, it would be difficult to grant special First Amendment protection to public university employees while denying it to other state employees.”

On the other hand, both the trial court and the Supreme Court held that information in the proposal that would reveal research hypothesis, data, valuable formula and the like should be redacted from the documents as they are covered by exemptions to the Public Records Act. The Court also excluded the peer review “pink sheets” from disclosure, as they were documents reflecting a deliberative process for an unsuccessful proposal and thus exempt under the “deliberative process” exemption. But, the Court also noted “Once the proposal becomes funded, it clearly becomes ‘implemented’ for purposes of this exemption and the pink sheets thereby become disclosable.”