An attack on Washington Public Records Act is bad for news media.
A proposal in the Legislature to create a new exemption to the state Public Records Act is a badly flawed attempt at protecting the identity of state workers while also harming the ability of the press to investigate public employees.
Senate Bill 6079 would exempt public employees’ birth dates from disclosure in an attempt to protect them from identity theft or personal attack. The proposal, which passed out of a Senate committee last week, must be stopped because its unintended consequences far outweigh any potential benefit.
Unfortunately, there are few ways to stop bad people from finding almost anyone’s birth date and the other vital information needed to steal an identity.
Identity thieves already know to go to publicly available state voter files and court records or pay a commercial operation that sells personal data, including phone numbers, birth dates and addresses. Or they can glean information from Facebook.
SB 6079 would do little to shield state employees’ privacy. But it would hurt the news media’s ability to keep track of public employees who break the law.
Journalists and members of the public have few ways of knowing if someone accused or arrested is also the same public employee who is teaching children or taking care of vulnerable adults or protecting our public safety as a police officer. Now, their birth dates appear on both court documents and on their public employee records.
So if Joe Smith is arrested on suspicion of selling drugs or child molestation, there’s one way of knowing if he’s the same person teaching sixth grade at a nearby middle school — compare his birth date in court records and public employees’ records.
Birth dates have helped Seattle Times reporters track teachers and coaches who transferred between districts after being accused of inappropriate relationships with students. The public wants and needs the news media to do its work to bring stories like the “Coaches who Prey” series to light.
Rowland Thompson, the executive director of The Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said a court battle over public records between state labor unions and the conservative Freedom Foundation inspired this bill. But the legislation goes beyond stopping the Freedom Foundation from contacting state employees to tell them how to stop paying their union dues.
“It is important for the public, who are the employers of public employees, to be able to know exactly who works for them,” Thompson said.
The sponsor of SB 6079, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, says she wants to keep working on a way to both protect the identities of public employees and make sure the public and press have access to the information they need.
SB 6079 does not achieve that goal. The Legislature should abandon this bill and work out a better solution.