In a recent case brought to the Supreme Court of the State of Washington, the issue of metadata as a public record was discussed. This issue has only been previously mediated once, in the Supreme Court of Arizona. In both cases, it was determined that metadata is part of its original electronic document and is therefore subject to disclosure under laws pertaining to public records. However, the court noted that unless metadata is specifically requested, it is not required.
On September 14, 2006, Diane Hettrick sent an email to Lisa Thwing, which was then forwarded on September 18th to Maggie Fimia, Shoreline Deputy Mayor, and several other people. During a public City Council meeting, the email was discussed and O’Neill “…made an oral request for [the] e-mail….” In response, Fimia sent O’Neill a hard copy of the e-mail. On September 25th, O’Neill requested the metadata from the e-mail. After Fimia was unable to find the original e-mail and its associated metadata, O’Neill brought suit under the Public Records Act.
In determining whether metadata is part of public records, the Court considered that “’Public Record’ includes any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function…” The Court continued, “Metadata may contain information that relates to the conduct of government and is important for the public to know.” Therefore, the Court concluded that “…the relevant email itself is a public record, so its embedded metadata is also a public record and must be disclosed.”
However, the Court also noted that, although disclosure of metadata was required in this situation, “…this does not necessarily mean that a government agency must provide metadata every time a request for public record is made.” O’Neill’s initial request for the e-mail did not explicitly include the metadata and, in fact, the Court concluded “…that a request for the metadata was not made until Ms. O’Neill specifically asked for it” and therefore was not required until that point.