Massachusetts’s highest court rules in favor of our client PETA in public records case

Last week, the highest court in Massachusetts issued an important decision in a public records lawsuit affirming the public’s broad right of access to government records. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a government agency cannot withhold records on “public safety” grounds unless the agency can provide specific factual support that releasing the records would jeopardize public safety. The case was being closely watched by public records advocates, since government agencies have increasingly been withholding records based on bogus “public safety” claims. The opinion makes clear that courts will not rubber-stamp these claims.

The lawsuit, which the firm filed in 2014 for our client People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (“PETA”), seeks to compel the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (“MDAR”) to provide public records about the transport of monkeys and other non-human primates into and out of Massachusetts. MDAR refused to provide the records, citing the “public safety exemption” to the public records law, which permits agencies to withhold records that they reasonably believe would pose a safety threat. MDAR claimed that all records having to do with animal research had to be kept secret from the public, noting that animal rights extremists had committed acts of violence in the past. The Superior Court (the lower court) sided with MDAR, and we filed an appeal.

The Supreme Judicial Court took the case to decide the scope of the public safety exemption, which had not yet been interpreted by the Court. Attorney David Milton argued that the language and purpose of the exemption, which was passed shortly after 9/11, supported a narrow interpretation. David argued that the law was primarily aimed at protecting records pertaining to physical infrastructure and security measures, such as blueprints and emergency preparedness plans—and not the animal health certificates involved in the case. The ACLU of Massachusetts and Prisoners Legal Services each filed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief supporting our client’s position.

The SJC agreed with our position, explaining that an agency cannot withhold records on public safety grounds based on unsubstantiated speculation. Rather, the agency must provide specific evidence that releasing the records presents a safety risk; this evidence must be particularly strong in cases like this one, where the records have nothing to do with infrastructure or security measures.

The opinion is a victory for government transparency and accountability in an era in which these basic democratic values are under attack.

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