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
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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.



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