Several state employee groups won expanded privacy protections Tuesday when the Oklahoma Supreme Court sided with them in a case over the disclosure of public employee birth dates.
Open government groups criticized the ruling, saying it expanded privacy protections for public employees at the expense of governmental oversight by the press and the public.
In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court said requests by the media, including The Oklahoman, for state employee birth dates and employee identification numbers were not in the public interest.
“There simply is no instance in which we can fathom how such information would advance the public's interest in assuring that the government is properly performing its function,” the opinion stated.
In a brief dissent, Chief Justice Steven W. Taylor and Justice Yvonne Kauger said the Legislature has amended the section of the Oklahoma Open Records Act dealing with personnel records three times since 1985.
“It has never chosen to include the date of birth,” the dissent stated. “If the Legislature desires to do so, it certainly can.”
At issue were requests under the Open Records Act by The Oklahoman — and later the Tulsa World — for state employee information. Among the records requested were birth dates, employee identification numbers, salary, tenure and job title.
The newspapers wanted the information to check the backgrounds of state employees. Birth dates are used as a secondary identifier if people share the same name.
“It's not just a question of using dates of birth for identification, but also for misidentification,” said Kelly Dyer Fry, editor of The Oklahoman and vice president of news for OPUBCO Communications Group. “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
Several state employee groups sued last year to stop the Office of Personnel Management from releasing the public employee birth date information requested by the newspapers.
Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said his group was concerned that birth dates could be “the missing puzzle piece” in both financial and health care identity fraud.
“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,” Zearley said in a statement.
State sells records
The birth dates of all registered voters are available for a fee from the state Election Board.
The state Department of Public Safety brings in about $12 million each year selling motor vehicle records to insurance companies that include the birth dates of licensed drivers in the state.
That amount is expected to rise after lawmakers last year doubled the fees for motor vehicle records to help close a budget shortfall.
The Open Records Act forbids the release of Social Security numbers, home addresses and home telephone numbers of public employees.
The law doesn't mention birth dates or employee identification numbers, but the Supreme Court ruling said legislators left it open for interpretation.
The court said the privacy interests of public employees outweighed any public interest arguments put forth by the media.
“The policy of disclosure is purposed to serve the public interest and not to satisfy the public's curiosity,” the majority opinion said. “Here, the information sought serves no valid public interest.”
In the Legislature, several bills were introduced in the last two sessions that would have made state employee birth dates confidential.
They failed to make it to the governor's desk.
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,” Thomas said.
“Now government will have everything about us, but we'll have nothing about them.”
Joe Worley, executive editor of the Tulsa World, said the newspaper was disappointed by the ruling, which he said 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,” Worley said.
“Without that information about public employees, Oklahomans don't know who is working in the government that they are paying for.”
Among those joining The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World in the case were the Oklahoma Press Association, several television stations, FOI Oklahoma Inc., the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.
Joey Senat, associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University, said the decision was a serious blow to the public's ability to act as a watchdog of its government's activities.
“The decision is based on the justices' subjective fears rather than facts,” Senat said.