The Ralph M. Brown Act, located at California Government Code 54950 et seq., is an act of the California State Legislature, authored by Assemblymember Ralph M. Brown and passed in 1953, that guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.
The Brown Act, originally a 686 word statute that has grown substantially over the years, was enacted in response to mounting public concerns over informal, undisclosed meetings held by local elected officials. City councils, county boards, and other local government bodies were avoiding public scrutiny by holding secret "workshops" and "study sessions." The Brown Act solely applies to California city and county government agencies, boards, and councils. The Act has been interpreted to apply to email communication as well, leading to restrictions on the number of parties that can be copied on electronic messages. The comparable Bagley-Keene Act mandates open meetings for State government agencies.
In late 1951, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mike Harris spent six weeks looking into the way local agencies conducted meetings. State law had long required that business be done in public, but Harris discovered secret meetings or caucuses were common. He wrote a 10-part series on “Your Secret Government” that ran in May and June 1952. Out of the series came a decision to push for a new state open meeting law. Harris and Richard (Bud) Carpenter, legal counsel for the League of California Cities, drafted such a bill and Assembly Member Ralph M. Brown agreed to carry it. The Legislature passed the bill and Governor Earl Warren signed it into law in 1953. Notably, increased public notice requirements also increased local agency classified advertising spending. Public meeting notice spending was preferential for morning newspapers such as the Chronicle, which was in a bitter rivalry with William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, an evening newspaper.
The introduction to the Brown Act describes its purpose and intent:
In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
The Sacramento Bee said of the act:
A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public's business and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.
Supporters of the Brown Act say it still lacks enforcement (and has never had a successful prosecution) contending the law has been eroded by court decisions and government officials' efforts to block access to records. "The unfulfilled promise, I'm afraid, that 50 years has revealed, is enforcement," commented Terry Francke, of the California First Amendment Coalition, on the 50th anniversary of the bill's passage in 2003.
Brown Act sections
- Title and definitions
- Adjourned or continued meetings
- Closed sessions
- Documents at meetings are public
- Emergency situations
- Electronic communications
- Public is not required to provide their name or any information
- No action or discussion shall be undertaken on any item not on the agenda
- Notice of meetings
- Open meetings
- Penalty to deprive the public of information
- Public comment
- Public criticism allowed
- Right to recording proceedings
- Reports of closed session actions
- Special meetings
- Time limits for public testimony
- When it does apply
- When it does not apply
- Willfully interrupting a meeting
- Freedom of information law in California
- Bagley-Keene Act
- California Public Records Act
- Sunshine law
- Freedom of Information Act
- Transparency (humanities) (metaphorical term, also related to politics)
- California government and politics
- Conflict of interest
- California First Amendment Coalition
- Californians Aware
- Lockyer, Bill (2003), The Brown Act: Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies (PDF), Foreword, Introduction, and Table of Contents, California Attorney General, archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-05-01, retrieved 2009-06-27
- "The Brown Act and the Perils of Electronic Communication". westerncity.com. 2011-06-01. Retrieved 2016-11-16.
- https://www.cacities.org/Resources-Documents/Resources-Section/Open-Government/Open-Public-2016.aspx. Missing or empty
- "California Government Code 54950 – in enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the … » LawServer".
- Sacramento Bee, October 5, 1952
- "Brown Act Primer: Enforcement". First Amendment Coalition. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
- California's sunshine law celebrates 50 years, First Amendment Center, archived from the original on 2014-03-29, retrieved 2005-06-01
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954.1". California Legislative Information. State of California.
Any person may request that a copy of the agenda, or a copy of all the documents constituting the agenda packet, of any meeting of a legislative body be mailed to that person. If requested, the agenda and documents in the agenda packet shall be made available in appropriate alternative formats to persons with a disability, as required by Section 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. Sec. 12132), and the federal rules and regulations adopted in implementation thereof. Upon receipt of the written request, the legislative body or its designee shall cause the requested materials to be mailed at the time the agenda is posted pursuant to Section 54954.2 and 54956 or upon distribution to all, or a majority of all, of the members of a legislative body, whichever occurs first. Any request for mailed copies of agendas or agenda packets shall be valid for the calendar year in which it is filed, and must be renewed following January 1 of each year. The legislative body may establish a fee for mailing the agenda or agenda packet, which fee shall not exceed the cost of providing the service. Failure of the requesting person to receive the agenda or agenda packet pursuant to this section shall not constitute grounds for invalidation of the actions of the legislative body taken at the meeting for which the agenda or agenda packet was not received.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54957.5(a)". California Legislative Information. State of California.
agendas of public meetings and any other writings, when distributed to all, or a majority of all, of the members of a legislative body of a local agency by any person in connection with a matter subject to discussion or consideration at an open meeting of the body, are disclosable public records under the California Public Records Act (Chapter 3.5 (commencing with Section 6250) of Division 7 of Title 1), and shall be made available upon request without delay.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54956.5". California Legislative Information. State of California.
(a) For purposes of this section, “emergency situation” means both of the following: (1) An emergency, which shall be defined as a work stoppage, crippling activity, or other activity that severely impairs public health, safety, or both, as determined by a majority of the members of the legislative body. (2) A dire emergency, which shall be defined as a crippling disaster, mass destruction, terrorist act, or threatened terrorist activity that poses peril so immediate and significant that requiring a legislative body to provide one-hour notice before holding an emergency meeting under this section may endanger the public health, safety, or both, as determined by a majority of the members of the legislative body. (b) (1) Subject to paragraph (2), in the case of an emergency situation involving matters upon which prompt action is necessary due to the disruption or threatened disruption of public facilities, a legislative body may hold an emergency meeting without complying with either the 24-hour notice requirement or the 24-hour posting requirement of Section 54956 or both of the notice and posting requirements. (2) Each local newspaper of general circulation and radio or television station that has requested notice of special meetings pursuant to Section 54956 shall be notified by the presiding officer of the legislative body, or designee thereof, one hour prior to the emergency meeting, or, in the case of a dire emergency, at or near the time that the presiding officer or designee notifies the members of the legislative body of the emergency meeting. This notice shall be given by telephone and all telephone numbers provided in the most recent request of a newspaper or station for notification of special meetings shall be exhausted. In the event that telephone services are not functioning, the notice requirements of this section shall be deemed waived, and the legislative body, or designee of the legislative body, shall notify those newspapers, radio stations, or television stations of the fact of the holding of the emergency meeting, the purpose of the meeting, and any action taken at the meeting as soon after the meeting as possible. (c) During a meeting held pursuant to this section, the legislative body may meet in closed session pursuant to Section 54957 if agreed to by a two-thirds vote of the members of the legislative body present, or, if less than two-thirds of the members are present, by a unanimous vote of the members present. (d) All special meeting requirements, as prescribed in Section 54956 shall be applicable to a meeting called pursuant to this section, with the exception of the 24-hour notice requirement. (e) The minutes of a meeting called pursuant to this section, a list of persons who the presiding officer of the legislative body, or designee of the legislative body, notified or attempted to notify, a copy of the rollcall vote, and any actions taken at the meeting shall be posted for a minimum of 10 days in a public place as soon after the meeting as possible.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54953.3". California Legislative Information. State of California.
A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body of a local agency, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance. If an attendance list, register, questionnaire, or other similar document is posted at or near the entrance to the room where the meeting is to be held, or is circulated to the persons present during the meeting, it shall state clearly that the signing, registering, or completion of the document is voluntary, and that all persons may attend the meeting regardless of whether a person signs, registers, or completes the document.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954.2(a)(3)". California Legislative Information. State of California.
No action or discussion shall be undertaken on any item not appearing on the posted agenda, except that members of a legislative body or its staff may briefly respond to statements made or questions posed by persons exercising their public testimony rights under Section 54954.3. In addition, on their own initiative or in response to questions posed by the public, a member of a legislative body or its staff may ask a question for clarification, make a brief announcement, or make a brief report on his or her own activities. Furthermore, a member of a legislative body, or the body itself, subject to rules or procedures of the legislative body, may provide a reference to staff or other resources for factual information, request staff to report back to the body at a subsequent meeting concerning any matter, or take action to direct staff to place a matter of business on a future agenda.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954(a)". California Legislative Information.
Each legislative body of a local agency, except for advisory committees or standing committees, shall provide, by ordinance, resolution, bylaws, or by whatever other rule is required for the conduct of business by that body, the time and place for holding regular meetings. Meetings of advisory committees or standing committees, for which an agenda is posted at least 72 hours in advance of the meeting pursuant to subdivision (a) of Section 54954.2, shall be considered for purposes of this chapter as regular meetings of the legislative body.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954.2(a)(1)". California Legislative Information.
At least 72 hours before a regular meeting, the legislative body of the local agency, or its designee, shall post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting, including items to be discussed in closed session. A brief general description of an item generally need not exceed 20 words. The agenda shall specify the time and location of the regular meeting and shall be posted in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public and on the local agency’s Internet Web site, if the local agency has one....
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54953(a)". California Legislative Information.
All meetings of the legislative body of a local agency shall be open and public, and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the legislative body of a local agency, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54959". California Legislative Information.
Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, and where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954.3(a)". California Legislative Information.
Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body, provided that no action shall be taken on any item not appearing on the agenda unless the action is otherwise authorized by subdivision (b) of Section 54954.2. However, the agenda need not provide an opportunity for members of the public to address the legislative body on any item that has already been considered by a committee, composed exclusively of members of the legislative body, at a public meeting wherein all interested members of the public were afforded the opportunity to address the committee on the item, before or during the committee’s consideration of the item, unless the item has been substantially changed since the committee heard the item, as determined by the legislative body. Every notice for a special meeting shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body concerning any item that has been described in the notice for the meeting before or during consideration of that item.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954.3(c)". California Legislative Information.
The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body. Nothing in this subdivision shall confer any privilege or protection for expression beyond that otherwise provided by law.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54953.5(a)". California Legislative Information.
Any person attending an open and public meeting of a legislative body of a local agency shall have the right to record the proceedings with an audio or video recorder or a still or motion picture camera in the absence of a reasonable finding by the legislative body of the local agency that the recording cannot continue without noise, illumination, or obstruction of view that constitutes, or would constitute, a persistent disruption of the proceedings.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54954.3(b)". California Legislative Information.
(1) The legislative body of a local agency may adopt reasonable regulations to ensure that the intent of subdivision (a) is carried out, including, but not limited to, regulations limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony on particular issues and for each individual speaker. (2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), when the legislative body of a local agency limits time for public comment, the legislative body of a local agency shall provide at least twice the allotted time to a member of the public who utilizes a translator to ensure that non-English speakers receive the same opportunity to directly address the legislative body of a local agency. (3) Paragraph (2) shall not apply if the legislative body of a local agency utilizes simultaneous translation equipment in a manner that allows the legislative body of a local agency to hear the translated public testimony simultaneously.
- "CA. Gov. Code § 54957.9". California Legislative Information.
In the event that any meeting is willfully interrupted by a group or groups of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible and order cannot be restored by the removal of individuals who are willfully interrupting the meeting, the members of the legislative body conducting the meeting may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session. Only matters appearing on the agenda may be considered in such a session. Representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section. Nothing in this section shall prohibit the legislative body from establishing a procedure for readmitting an individual or individuals not responsible for willfully disturbing the orderly conduct of the meeting.
-  full text of the Brown Act
- Brown Act Pamphlet 2003 from the California Attorney General's Office
- Brown Act Primer
- Thorough discussion in the open government guide
- CFAC.org - 'California First Amendment Coalition: Protecting & Defending California's Right to Know Since 1988'
- CNPA.com - 'Ralph M. Brown Act: 1953-2003 50th Anniversary: Brown Act and Beyond'
- Contra Costa Times - 'Brown Act backers say laws need teeth', Don Thompson (AP), Contra Costa Times (July 2, 2003)
- FAS.org - 'Project on Government Secrecy', Federation of American Scientists
- VanguardNews.com - 'The Brown Act: California Codes Government Code Section 54950-54963 (August 28, 2004)
- RCFP.org - 'The Door to Open Government in California', Duffy Carolan, Esq., Selena Poon Ontiveros, Esq., The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press