This time, their public-records crusade isn’t righteous. It’s dismissive of legitimate privacy concerns.
By DAVID GROVES
(Jan. 27, 2020) — Two years ago, Washington’s newspapers aggressively opposed a bipartisan attempt by state legislators to exempt themselves from much of the Public Records Act. They succeeded and Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the bill. In my opinion, it was a righteous cause.
This year, newspapers are aggressively opposing HB 1888, a proposal to add public employees’ birth dates to the list of information exempted from public disclosure.
This time, the newspapers’ cause isn’t so righteous. Their arguments are not only weak and dismissive of public employees’ legitimate privacy and safety concerns, they are parroting cynical anti-union talking points to try to kill this legislation.
In 1972, Washington voters approved the Public Records Act (Initiative 276), specifying what government information must be available for public inspection. The PRA explicitly aimed to protect public employees’ privacy. In the 1972 Voter’s Pamphlet, I-276 backers assured voters that “certain records are exempted to protect individual privacy.” That’s why the PRA currently exempts home addresses and phone numbers, Social Security numbers, personal email addresses, and certain other information. The release of this information violates the privacy of public employees and could compromise their families’ safety if obtained by someone with malicious intent.
Nearly a half-century since the PRA was approved, a lot has changed. It’s much harder to protect individual privacy when personal information is often just a few keystrokes away. That’s why online security experts recommend that you never put your birth date online. It makes it too easy not only to steal your identity, but also to access your home address.
But in a narrow (5-4) ruling in October 2019, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled that public employees’ birth dates are subject to disclosure. Although justices expressed sympathy with public employees’ privacy concerns, the court ruled: “We cannot judicially expand the PRA’s narrow exemptions beyond the boundaries set by the legislature.”
If you are a victim of domestic or sexual violence or stalking, or testified as a witness in a criminal proceeding, or have been involved in a private adoption, or for any number of legitimate reasons you want to safeguard your privacy, imagine how it feels to have someone find out where you live via public records.
Now imagine that you have a job where people routinely get angry with you. Ask any social worker, police officer, licenser, inspector, public hospital nurse, or just about any other public employee if they have ever been harassed or threatened at work. Now ask them if they think it’s the public’s right to know what their birth date is so they can figure out where they live.
It’s a significant breach of the personal privacy and safety promised in the Public Records Act.
Newspaper editors and their lobbyists don’t see it this way. They say birth dates “are essential to identifying individuals” when investigating government wrongdoing. They claim HB 1888 would “obscure the identity of state employees” making it impossible to distinguish between public employees with similar names.
But wait. Other states, including Oregon and California, protect their public employees by exempting their birth dates from disclosure. Journalists in those states manage to do their jobs just fine. Birth dates are certainly helpful in identifying individuals, but they are far from essential.
The question is: does making journalists’ jobs easier outweigh the privacy and safety concerns of public employees?
Those of us who support HB 1888 say “no.” The Public Records Act clearly intends to safeguard public employees’ privacy with its existing exemptions. But in 2020, those exemptions must be updated to include birth dates because advancements in technology have rendered those existing privacy protections weak and insufficient.
But the newspapers don’t stop there. Perhaps in recognition that their arguments against HB 1888 are easily refuted, they are also impugning the motives of the unions that support it. They say unions are trying to make it harder for the right-wing Freedom Foundation to convince members to quit their unions. This group is trying to use the PRA to get public employees’ names and birth dates for the express purpose of determining their home addresses. That way they can send mail and/or paid canvassers to their homes to urge them to quit their unions.
But wait. Isn’t that the whole point of the existing home address exemption in the Public Records Act? To keep this from happening? It doesn’t matter who these jokers are and what their cause is. They are exploiting a weakness of an outdated law to violate people’s privacy.
The Freedom Foundation already uses the PRA to bombard Washington’s public employees with anti-union propaganda, directly via work emails and workplace leafleting, and indirectly via billboards, radio ads, airplane banners, and more. (Ironically, the Freedom Foundation says the reason it refuses to disclose its own donors is so they won’t be “harassed.”)
But when public employees get phone calls at home or have people show up at their doors for whatever reason, they are justifiably alarmed. They want to know how these people got their home phone number and address. They thought that information was private. So they have appealed to their unions to fight to protect their privacy. Those unions took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court, but the justices ruled that it’s up to the Legislature.
That’s why unions are supporting HB 1888 — to right this wrong.
The fact that newspapers and their lobbyists are not only dismissive of public employees’ right to privacy and safety at home, but also parroting the anti-union talking points of the Freedom Foundation is very disconcerting. When newspapers stray from simply making their case on questions of public policy to aligning their agenda with secretly funded quasi-political organizations, they risk losing not only their credibility on open government issues, but also the public trust in their journalistic objectivity.
David Groves is Editor of The Stand. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of his employer, the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Make sure you subscribe to The Stand, or you just don’t get it.