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Freedom Foundation Sues San Bernardino County Over Information Request Denial

Under California’s Public Records Act, public agencies have an obligation to honor every document request unless there is a specific exemption in state law for the information being sought. And the burden of proof is on the agency to justify any refusal to comply.

But a lawsuit filed on Monday accuses San Bernardino County of systematically refusing to hand over contact information about public employees because it knows the group making the request is on a mission to inform the workers about a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that recognizes their right to opt out of union membership, dues and fees.

“Public records laws exist to ensure government agencies are transparent and accountable,” said Shella Sadovnik, an attorney with the Freedom Foundation, which has been trying to obtain the documents since March 12. “They were not created to protect the monopoly labor unions have traditionally enjoyed in the public workplace.”

The Freedom Foundation, with offices in California, Oregon, Washington, Ohio and Pennsylvania,  has a vigorous outreach program whose goal is to educate government employees about Janus v. AFSCME, a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming that compulsory support of a labor union — whether through member dues or so-called “agency fees” charged to nonmembers — is a violation of the First Amendment.

But in order to inform the workers, the Freedom Foundation must first know who they are and how to reach them.

Basic contact information — such as the worker’s full name, birthdate, work email, etc. — has always been public, since the employees are paid by state taxes. In fact, it was readily provided to the unions, who use it for organizing purposes.

But in the wake of Janus, the unions stand to lose billions in dues revenues if public employees suddenly realize membership and dues are now voluntary. Consequently, they’re exerting considerable pressure on public agencies to deny workers’ contact information to organizations like the Freedom Foundation, which hope to spread a message that unions don’t want their members to hear.

In the San Bernardino lawsuit, county personnel officials responded to the Freedom Foundation information request by insisting they do not maintain records of which employees are represented by a union — even though the state deducts dues from the workers’ paychecks and forwards the money to their respective union.

Further, the county asserts:

  • the records fall under a public-interest exemption;
  • the disclosure of contact details would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the workers’ personal privacy; and,
  • it could expose workers to safety concerns.

“All of their objections are bogus,” Sadovnik said.

“First, the burden is on the public agency to show the public’s need for nondisclosure,” she explained. “The county has provided no such reason. Further, the Freedom Foundation is not seeking personnel, medical or private employee files, so the privacy concerns are inapplicable in this case. Nor are there any safety issues when you’re providing already-public information.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino Superior Court, lists San Bernardino County as the lone defendant and seeks release of the requested documents plus a declaration from the county admitting it erred in withholding them.

A similar lawsuit was filed May 12 by the Freedom Foundation in Sacramento Superior Court against CalHR, and the state of California to obtain publicly disclosable information — under the California Public Records Act.

“Public records laws assume everything a government does is open to scrutiny unless there’s a good reason it shouldn’t be,” Sadovnik said. “Keeping government employees in the dark about their rights so their union can continue to plunder their paychecks isn’t a good reason.”