Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reactions to state Supreme Court ruling blocking public access to government employees' identification numbers and birth dates in their personnel files

Reactions to the state Supreme Court's ruling that public access to government employees' birth dates and identification numbers would serve no valid public interest but would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

  • Schaad Titus, an attorney for the Tulsa World:
    We are very disappointed, as we feel date-of-birth information is a fundamental tool to the media to distinguish one public agency employee from any other person. We respectfully believe the court misapplied the balancing standard and the extreme public interest the press has in accurately distinguishing the public agency employee from any other person such as Jim Smith who committed a crime.
  • Joe Worley, Tulsa World executive editor, said the ruling is disappointing because it "makes new law."
    With date-of-birth information, the Tulsa World is able to confirm or rule out the identity of people accused of crimes. Without that information about public employees, Oklahomans don't know who is working in the government that they are paying for.

    The state of Oklahoma is selling date-of-birth information about public employees but won't release that same information to the public.
  • Kelly Dyer Fry, editor of The Oklahoman and vice president of news for OPUBCO Communications Group:
    It's not just a question of using dates of birth for identification, but also for misidentification. If average citizens run their names through the sex offender registry, they might be surprised to find someone on the list with the same name. Birth dates can quickly sort out who's who. I respectfully disagree with the court's decision.
  • M. Scott Carter, president, Oklahoma Professional Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists:
    We are disappointed by this ruling. This ruling suggests that state employees have a greater right to privacy than the average citizen.

    We feel this ruling is a setback for transparency efforts within Oklahoma government. On too many occasions, the spirit and strength of the Oklahoma Open Meeting and Open Record Act have been chipped away over concerns about an invasion of privacy.

    In their ruling a majority of the court said they “could not fathom an instance where this information could be used by the public to ensure the government is properly performing its function.”

    We disagree.

    Oklahomans need transparency in their government. Further, being able to use a birth date to correctly identify a state worker – who could be making or enforcing policy that would have a profound impact on residents – is an absolute necessity for both the public and media professionals.

    In the future, we hope the Justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court will consider the vital role the news media plays in ensuring Oklahoma government remains transparent and accessible to the general public.
  • Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said the Supreme Court expanded privacy protections for state employees at the expense of transparency in government.
    It's ironic that private citizens are required to give our information to the government to vote or drive, but the same information about state employees is off limits. Now government will have everything about us, but we'll have nothing about them.
  • Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association:
    This is a great victory for OPEA and state employees. The Association followed through on this critical issue all the way to the Supreme Court because we believed state employees, who dedicate their lives to public service, should not have their private information released to the press or other individuals.

    OPEA was concerned that an employee’s birth date could be the missing puzzle piece in both financial and health care identity fraud. In addition, the safety of corrections officers, child welfare workers, and other employees who work with the public could be put in jeopardy.
  • Randy Terrill, Republican state representative from Moore:
    I believe in openness and transparency in government and that any data related to the job performance of an employee should be public record. However, birthdates and personal identification numbers in no way relate to an employee’s performance in an official capacity. The blanket release of personal data simply does not satisfy the test set forth by the court today.

    We did try to work with the Oklahoma Press Association and other media entities to craft a reasonable compromise to provide access to state employees’ information under certain circumstances when reasonable suspicion existed, but those efforts were rebuffed. Today, the 'all or nothing' approach they pursued has left them with nothing. It is my hope that they will be less rigid and dogmatic in the future when someone makes a good-faith, reasonable effort to negotiate a compromise.

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