Los Angeles Times Communications, et al. v. Arik Housley: Defending the right to privacy for mass shooting victims’ families
Case Information: Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, The Associated Press, And Scripps NP Operating, LLC, Publisher Of The Ventura County Star, v. Arik Housley, Case No. B310585 (Cal. Ct. App. brief filed October 5, 2021)
At Issue: The mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill ended with the death of 11 victims and the shooter. The media plays an important role in the proper functioning of our democracy. This tragedy, however, received significant, intrusive media attention that harmed victims’ surviving family members. Media companies seeking to report additional details on the mass shooting sought autopsy reports of the victims through a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request. The victims’ families objected to the request, based upon their privacy interest in autopsy reports, and exemptions to the CPRA. The victim’s families sought and received a preliminary injunction preventing disclosure of the autopsy reports, which the media companies have now appealed. At issue on appeal is whether the lower court was wrong to issue a preliminary injunction preventing disclosure.
Our Brief: Our brief argues that the Court should affirm the preliminary injunction. Requests for disclosure of public records implicate two competing interests: (1) the general public’s right of access to information concerning government conduct, and (2) an individual right to privacy. While legislative policy generally (and appropriately) favors disclosure, the right of access to public records is far from absolute, and is designed to protect individual privacy interests in certain circumstances.
Several exemptions to the CPRA support the Respondents’ request that their loved ones’ autopsy records be shielded from the public eye. The private medical files exemption protects the records because the autopsies were conducted as part of a criminal investigation. Furthermore, the limited public interest in the disclosure of these highly personal records is outweighed by the invasion of privacy that these victims would suffer.
The CPRA also contains a catch-all provision that also protects these autopsy report from disclosure. The public interest in these records is “minimal” because the District Attorney’s already-public report contains witness statements, transcribed audio communications, marked-up photographs, a comprehensive timeline, and stills from security footage. There is little else–other than gruesome details–to be gained from disclosure of these records.
On the other hand, the public would benefit from keeping these records private because it would ensure that our government institutions effectuate a longstanding cultural tradition of protecting familial control over a decedent’s body and images and, importantly, deter potential copy-cat attacks in the interest of public safety.