A&A: Is US’s federally-funded research exempt from CPRA?

Q: If a group of scientists is doing research at a state university, but the research is funded entirely by the National Science Foundation (a federal agency), is the group’s work exempt from the CPRA?

A: The Act states that “public records” include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” Gov’t Code § 6252(e) (emph. added).

Under this definition, it would not matter where or how the records were generated, or, in your situation, who paid for them to be generated; rather, if the agency is in possession of the records, then those records are presumptively subject to disclosure unless some exemption applies.

Furthermore, a “state agency” includes state universities.  Gov’tCode § 6252(f).  Thus, the Public Records Act applies to UC Berkeley and its records. See, e.g., California State Univ. v. Superior Court, 90 Cal. App. 4th 810, 830 (2001) (university was a “state agency” under the Act).

There are numerous exemptions and exceptions to the Public Records Act, and it is possible that any number of exemptions may be cited by the university upon a request for
research by UC scientists.  Whether the cited exemption is actually valid is usually another matter.

Courts have repeatedly stated that the Public Records Act is to be interpreted narrowly in favor of greater disclosure.  If an agency does claim that requestedrecords are exempt from disclosure, it must state which exemptions it is claiming, and how those exemptions apply, Gov’t Code § 6253(c), which will then give you a starting point for determining how to respond, particularly if it seems the records should be
disclosed under the Act.

You can find more information about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter, on the FAC’s website here:

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.