Following threats and attacks on public officials, state lawmakers across the U.S. have stepped up efforts to shield personal information from being publicly disclosed about judges, police, elected officeholders and various public employees.
The measures generally are winning widespread support in state capitols — adding a layer of secrecy, in the name of safety, that could make it more difficult to determine whether public officials are complying with residency laws and paying their property taxes.
The efforts to exempt more information from public disclosure come despite the fact that many governments are more transparent than ever when it comes to their meetings — making permanent the online streaming options spurred as a response to coronavirus-related restrictions on public gatherings.
That's led to a split assessment of government openness during Sunshine Week, an annual recognition of public information laws that began Sunday and runs through Saturday.
Though meetings may be more accessible, "basically, government is getting more secretive every year," said David Cuillier, an associate journalism professor at the University of Arizona who has been analyzing data about government compliance with open-records laws.
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People requesting records from the federal government are successful only about one-fifth of the time, down from a greater than 50% success rate more than a decade ago, according to Cuillier's research.
Information requests under state laws typically fair better, Cuillier said, but "every year, we get exemptions being passed in state legislatures all across the country, and that just seems to be accelerating."
On a case-by-case basis, many public records exceptions may appear reasonable and justified. The movement to shield the home addresses of judges provides one good example.
In 2020, a man disgruntled with U.S. District Judge Esther Salas came to her New Jersey home disguised as a deliveryman and fatally shot her 20-year-old son while wounding her husband. New Jersey officials responded later that year by enacting a law that exempted the home addresses of current or retired judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers from disclosure under public records laws. The measure, called Daniel’s Law in honor of the judge’s son, also allowed covered officials to ask businesses or individuals to remove their home addresses from internet sites they control.
Though some states already had similar laws, the New Jersey case provided an impetus for action elsewhere. Most states now have laws prohibiting governmental entities from disclosing the home addresses of at least some public employees, with judges among the most commonly protected, according to research by Jodie Gil, an associate journalism professor at Southern Connecticut State University.
A study panel of the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization that drafts potential legislation for state lawmakers, plans to recommend this spring that a common policy be drafted to exclude judges' home addresses and certain personal information from public-record disclosures, said Vince DeLiberato, director of Pennsylvania's Legislative Reference Bureau and chair of the study panel. The policy also could include an option to shield information for other public officials facing threats, he said.
Meanwhile, states are pressing forward with their own information-exemption laws for certain officials.
The Missouri Senate recently voted 30-1 for legislation that allows judges and prosecutors to request that their home addresses, phone numbers, personal email addresses, marital status, children's identities and other information be removed from public display. The shield would apply not only to government records and websites but also to privately run sites such as online phone directories and internet search engines. That bill is now pending in the House.
On the same day as the Missouri vote, the Georgia Senate voted 53-0 for legislation allowing federal, state or local public employees to request that their residential addresses and phone numbers be removed from online property records posted by local governments. That bill is now pending in the House.
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"We don’t want people to be able to track these folks down and cause harm," Georgia state Sen. Matt Brass, a Republican, said while explaining his bill to a Senate committee.
But Richard Griffiths, a former president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, raised concerns about the unintended consequences, asserting that the New Jersey law "turned into a bit of a train wreck." Some governments shut down entire databases because of uncertainty about exactly whose information should be removed from which public records, he said.
New Jersey lawmakers responded in January 2022 by tweaking the process in Daniel’s Law and establishing a state Office of Information Privacy — funded with $3 million — to create an online portal through which judicial and law enforcement officials can request that their information be redacted.
Public records listing the home addresses of government officials can function as an important tool for journalists working on public accountability stories, Gil said. Addresses in voter registration files and property ownership records can be used to determine whether officials actually live in the district they represent or are delinquent on property taxes.
When she was working as a journalist a decade ago, Gil reported that a local tax collector was certifying that some public officials had paid their vehicle taxes when they actually had not.
"It's something that I could have never even attempted if public records were not connecting public officials and their addresses," Gil said. "I didn’t publish any address — I didn't say the mayor lives at this house — but I needed his address to confirm that he was paying his taxes."
Lawmakers are taking a variety of approaches to address confidentiality this year. An Oregon bill would prohibit the home addresses of elected officials and candidates from being publicly disclosed on voter registration lists. A Connecticut bill would add court marshals, attorney general's employees and workers in a state unit that determines services for people with disabilities to a list of about a dozen types of public employees whose home addresses are confidential under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.
The Connecticut bill is backed by state Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat who told lawmakers that his assistants are getting targeted online.
"People get really angry when they’re the subject of an enforcement action," Tong said, "and sometimes they retaliate and they threaten people in my office with violence."
But redacting public employee addresses from state records won't necessarily prevent threats and "provides employees with a false sense of comfort and security," said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, a state agency that administers and enforces open-records laws.
"For better or worse, the fact is that the residential addresses of most people are now readily available for free, or for a nominal charge, on the internet and through other commercial services," Murphy said.
In New Mexico, a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of Democratic elected officials prompted the Senate to pass legislation that would let public officials keep secret their home addresses on election-related documents and government websites. The provision was included in a broader election bill that is now pending in the House.
Among the supporters is Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez, of Albuquerque, whose home was hit by multiple shots while her 10-year-old daughter was sleeping.
"I understand the issue on transparency," Lopez said, "but the day and time that we’re in, we really have to rethink what we are doing."