Politics & Government

Official metadata public, court says

SEATTLE - Metadata associated with electronic documents - such as the "to" and "from" fields in e-mails – are public records subject to disclosure, Washington's Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 5-4 ruling concerned a Shoreline resident’s request under the Public Records Act for an e-mail that had been sent to the city’s deputy mayor. The resident received a copy without the metadata.

“Metadata may contain information that relates to the conduct of government and is important for the public to know,” Justice Susan Owens wrote. “It could conceivably include information about whether a document was altered, what time a document was created, or who sent a document to whom.”

Owens wrote that only one other state high court – Arizona’s – has considered the question, and it too held that the information is subject to disclosure.

The issue has arisen elsewhere as courts grapple with the intersection of technology and disclosure laws.

Metadata can include information such as the address fields in e-mails, file types, file creation and modification dates, and the author of such modifications.

That type of information became important to Shoreline resident Beth O’Neill in 2006, when the city’s deputy mayor, Maggie Fimia, claimed at a public meeting that O’Neill had sent an e-mail accusing the City Council of improper conduct in a zoning dispute. O’Neill had not written or forwarded any such e-mail, and she wanted to know why Fimia was claiming she had.

It turned out that O’Neill’s name was mentioned in an e-mail Fimia received from someone else. After the meeting, Fimia forwarded the e-mail from her city account to her personal account – stripping out the address fields to protect the identity of the person who sent her the e-mail.

O’Neill asked for the original e-mail with its metadata. Fimia searched her e-mail folders and concluded she must have deleted it.

The high court ruled it was improper for Fimia to delete the original e-mail, especially since it was subject to a public disclosure request.

Because Fimia used her personal computer for official business, the justices sent the case back to a lower court with instructions for the city to search the hard drive of Fimia’s home computer to find the metadata.