Journalist Camille Fassett filed a lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents on June 6 for allegedly failing to provide documents she requested under the California Public Records Act, or PRA.
Fassett requested records on topics including UCPD’s requests for excess military equipment from federal agencies, the department’s participation in Urban Shield, and any possible cooperation between the department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, according to court documents filed with the Alameda County Superior Court.
The PRA requires that all government records be made available to the public unless there is a specific reason to withhold the information. According to Fassett, as a public agency, UC Berkeley is subject to the act.
“UC Berkeley has been significantly less responsive than other agencies to which I have sent records requests,” Fassett said in an email. “Public records litigation oftentimes requires resources and time that members of the public and citizen and local journalists don’t have. Access to public records shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for well-resourced journalists.”
The court documents claim that campus responded to several of the PRA requests with similar or identical emails, which claim that requests are generally fulfilled after eight weeks. Fassett alleged that she did not receive any further communication for many of the requests until after she sent follow-up emails stating that she was considering taking legal action, which was done 29 weeks after her original request.
Responding to PRA requests often involves communicating with the individual requesting the information as well as coordinating with campus units to review the information and determine whether it can be released, said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email. Student records, for example, are generally exempt from the PRA, Gilmore added.
Gilmore noted that the campus public records office only has one full-time employee tasked with responding to its “high volume” of public information requests.
“In some cases PRA requests may be so overly broad, or insufficiently clear, that the PRA office may request that the request be narrowed or further defined,” Gilmore said in an email. “In other instances, the records requested may not exist, or may be exempt from disclosure.”
According to one of Fassett’s lawyers, Abenicio Cisneros, all records are accessible by the public through the PRA unless they fall under explicit exemptions, such as sensitive personnel or law enforcement investigative records, or if the organization decides that it is in the public interest not to disclose the information.
Fassett alleged that UC Berkeley responded after she threatened to take legal action and denied some of the requests because they were “extremely broad.” She argued in the court documents that her requests were “quite focused” and “manageable” but that the standardized manner in which UC Berkeley responded to the PRA requests indicated that the campus did not “substantively” address some of the requests.
“The CPRA is of critical importance to journalists and to the public at large, so important that it has involved the passing of a constitutional amendment in California,” Cisneros said. “This legislation is a benchmark of democratic society, and an agency’s obligation to comply is one of its most critical obligations.”