Oklahoma Supreme Court stops release of public employee birth dates

In a 7-2 decision, the court sided with public employee groups who said the release of birth dates was an invasion of privacy. The media and open government groups criticized the ruling, saying it grants greater protections to state employees than privacy protections for the general public.
BY PAUL MONIES pmonies@opubco.com Modified: June 29, 2011 at 10:41 am •  Published: June 29, 2011

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 decision.”

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.

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