Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has issued a clarification after a formal opinion issued last week caused confusion over whether public agencies should release birth dates of their employees. The new language states that because birth records are not explicitly exempted from the Oklahoma Open Records Act, they are presumed open. If agencies want to claim that releasing birth dates falls within an exception for releasing records that would constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” they must justify such a decision on a case-by-case basis and weigh the privacy interest against the public interest in releasing the information.
Why seek an opinion?State Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, asked for the opinion after Oklahoma City refused to release the birth date of Ed Martin, the director of its Weed and Seed program. Martin was placed on administrative leave earlier this year when city officials found federal grant funds in the program had been mismanaged. The Oklahoman requested Martin’s birth date in an effort to conduct background research after he was identified as part of the investigation. Without a birth date to match to common names, it is impossible to determine a public employee’s criminal record or other vital background information. After the original opinion was released last week, Edmondson said birth dates should be open most of the time. But language within the opinion itself questioned the public interest in opening birth dates and seemed to give agencies a ready-made excuse for refusing to release them. "It bothered him (Edmondson) that some of the language in the original opinion caused people to believe that an agency of government could simply say, ‘We’re not going to give you any birth dates,’” said Charlie Price, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. "We wanted to clarify the intent of the opinion.” Oklahoma City Attorney Kenny Jordan said last week that Martin’s birth date fit within the privacy exception. Jordan could not be reached Wednesday for comment on whether the revised opinion changes the city’s position on releasing birth dates.
Clarification laudedJoey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor and open government expert, said the revised opinion clears up contradictions between Edmondson’s comments and the language in the opinion. The revised opinion still leaves the decision over whether to release birth dates up to individual agencies. Senat said many agencies are notorious for improperly applying legal exceptions, meaning a lawsuit may be the only way to get agencies to release information. Senat said Martin’s case is a prime example of when the public has a clear interest in knowing an employee’s birth date. Martin has a common name and is on paid leave because he is being investigated. "There is a substantial public interest in knowing this information,” Senat said. "News media use this information to identify government employees who shouldn’t be in some of those jobs, people who take care of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”