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First Amendment Coalition Sues California County for Access to COVID Data

First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit based in California dedicated to advancing free speech, open government and public participation in civic affairs.

By Andy Putterman

On April 22nd, the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a nonprofit public interest organization, filed a lawsuit against Ventura County in Southern California. FAC alleges the County violated the California Public Records Act (CPRA) after failing to appropriately respond to two requests for information regarding data on COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths, thus violating the right of access under the First Amendment.

Regarding the first request for data, the County replied to FAC saying “due to the COVID-19 emergency it has been determined that the public interest is not served by diverting staff and resources away from emergency response to immediately respond to this request. (Gov. Code, § 6255.)”

However, FAC states in its lawsuit that “while an agency may, after a reasonable search for records responsive to a request, determine that a particular record is exempt from disclosure under section 6255(a), it is still required to provide an actual determination.”

FAC Litigation Director Glen Smith told First Amendment Watch that the County’s response constitutes “a government agency creating its own special exemption from having to comply with the public records act.”

FAC seeks a writ of mandate from a judge “to compel the County to comply with its statutory obligations under the CPRA, including providing proper responses and responsive documents to FAC’s requests.”