The Public's Right to Know in Washington State
Public disclosure requests and the state governmentBy Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 26, 2024
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Public Access to Information in the State of Washington
- Legislative Attempts to Circumvent the Law
- Backlash to Proposed Limits on Public Records Requests
- Ensuring Open Government Through the Disclosure of Public Information
In 2017, a coalition of news agencies in Washington state filed a lawsuit against the Washington State Legislature and its leadership over conflicting interpretations of the state’s public records law. The underlying matter involved requests for documents— emails, calendar entries, text messages—related to claims of sexual harassment within the legislature.
Public Access to Information in the State of Washington
Public records disclosure laws are intended to ensure that members of the public have access to information relating to federal, state, and local government issues. The news agencies’ lawsuit, filed in the Thurston County Superior Court, addressed two Washington state laws:
- The 1971 Open Public Meetings Act. This law outlines the requirements for disclosure of records relating to public agencies, including “all public commissions, boards, councils, committees, subcommittees, departments, divisions, offices, and all other public agencies [representing the people of the state].” The law also circumscribes activities, documents, and information that is not subject to public scrutiny, including personal matters of public representatives.
- The Washington State Public Records Act (PRA). The PRA originated from the 1972 voter-approved Initiative 276, which favored “full access to public records so as to assure continuing public confidence in the fairness of elections and governmental processes.” A 1995 legislative amendment further defined “state office” and the types of records included under the act.
Legislative Attempts to Circumvent the Law
The superior court ruled in favor of the news agencies that legislators are subject to disclosure by law. Seeking to overturn that ruling and to circumvent a pending appeal to the state’s supreme court, the legislature sought to enact legislation modifying the open records law during the final days of its 2018 session.
“On a Wednesday afternoon, they introduced a bill that would have overturned the court decision and would have sealed the Washington legislature from the public records law,” says Seattle media attorney Judy Endejan. “They introduced it, didn’t have a public hearing, then passed it on Friday—all within less than a 48-hour period.”
Backlash to Proposed Limits on Public Records Requests
The bill appeared veto-proof due to the large majority of legislators voting for its passage. However, media and public outcry (including a rare front-page editorial in The Seattle Times) led to the unusual outcome of legislators stating they would not pursue an override and requesting a veto from the governor.
“The public went crazy. The governor’s office got like 22,000 phone calls asking him to veto it. Because of all the public backlash, the legislature realized it sort of got caught with its pants down.”
Ensuring Open Government Through the Disclosure of Public Information
What does all this mean for individual residents of Washington? According to Endejan, the public needs to be watchful.
“Bit by bit, states are making it harder for citizens and the press to gain access to public records. That’s a huge concern of mine. It might be a small thing—like they’ll add a couple more exemptions, or they’ll add something that will make the requester have to pay more. In my view, this is harmful to democracy. Because the press is essential to uncovering all the things that citizens need to know about.”
If you are a member of the press or a citizen whose request for public records (including electronic records) has been denied by a government agency, city council, legislature, or other public official, consider reaching out to an experienced media and communications attorney. For more information on this area of law, see our civil rights overview.
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