Washington Supreme Court Rules Metadata Part of Public Record

In the second case of its kind, the Washington State Supreme Court issued an Opinion regarding the issue of metadata as a public record was discussed (the first case was in the Supreme Court of Arizona). Both cases determined that metadata is part of its original electronic document and is therefore subject to disclosure under laws pertaining to public records. However, in order to require disclosure, metadata must be specifically requested.

On September 14, 2006, Diane Hettrick sent an email to Lisa Thwing, which was then forwarded on September 18 to Maggie Fimia, Shoreline Deputy Mayor, and several other people. The email was discussed during a public City Council meeting, and O’Neill “…made an oral request for [the] e-mail….” Fimia sent O’Neill a hard copy of the e-mail. On September 25, O’Neill requested the metadata from the e-mail. When Fimia was unable to find the original e-mail and its associated metadata, O’Neill brought suit under the Public Records Act.

The Court considered that a “’Public Record’ includes “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function […] Metadata may contain information that relates to the conduct of government and is important for the public to know.” Thus the Court concluded that “…the relevant email itself is a public record, so its embedded metadata is also a public record and must be disclosed.”

Despite this holding, the Court also stated that, although disclosure of metadata was mandatory in this instance, “…this does not necessarily mean that a government agency must provide metadata every time a request for public record is made.” As the initial request for the e-mail did not explicitly include the metadata, the Court concluded “…that a request for the metadata was not made until Ms. O’Neill specifically asked for it” and therefore was not required until that point.