Q: I’ve attended some meetings of a local government in California recently and they’ve started using Zoom to conduct the meetings because of the local COVID-19 public health orders. I’ve set up my Zoom sign-on to identify me as “John Q. Public,” which as you can probably guess isn’t my real name. But they do know who I am. However, at the beginning of the Zoom meetings the district secretary has gotten into the habit of stating a list of all the attendees and she frequently identifies me by my real full name — not as John Q. Public — and she even goes so far as to say the neighborhood that I live in.
As a member of the pubic attending the meeting, I would prefer that she not identify me in any way and most definitely not by my full real name. I am going to ask her to stop doing it, however before I do that I would like to determine whether or not what she is doing is actually a violation of any law.
The following are a couple of my thoughts:
1) Is it a violation of the California Brown Act? I can’t be required to register to attend the meeting, but by stating my name it’s almost as if she is “registering” me without my consent?
2) Is it an invasion of my privacy?
3) If this were an actual in-person meeting I don’t think this would be tolerated — at the beginning of the meeting they couldn’t look out into the audience and publicly list/identify the attendees — at least I don’t think they could.
A: The Ralph M. Brown Act states that members of the public cannot be required to sign in as a condition of attendance at a public meeting. Cal. Gov. Code § 54953.3. However, the Brown Act is silent as to whether members of the public must be permitted to remain anonymous once they are in attendance at a meeting. The Brown Act is similarly silent as to whether a member of a legislative body is prohibited from stating the name of attendees. While § 54953.3 provides that members of the public may get into meetings without providing any identifying information, we are unaware of any specific provision that would prevent a legislative body from recognizing people at its meetings once they are inside.
Invasion of privacy is a tort, and is thus somewhat outside the scope of our expertise at this hotline. However, it seems unlikely that a successful action for invasion of privacy could be brought based on the conduct of a Brown Act meeting—in ordinary circumstances, attendees at meetings are visible to the public and understand that they are appearing in a public forum. Additionally, any attendee at a meeting is permitted to video record the proceedings, which could indicate that public meetings are not generally considered spaces in which attendees have an expectation of privacy. § 54953.5.
It may be worth contacting the secretary and requesting that she stop reading out attendee names as a courtesy, but we are unaware of any specific prohibition in the Brown Act that would prevent this.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.