Editorial: No need to conceal state employees’ birthdates

A bill drafted to stop release of state workers’ birthdates could hamper media investigations.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Many of us, especially those of us past our 30s, can be reluctant about sharing our age.

But a reluctance to be forthcoming about our age has nothing to do with legislation in the state Senate that would prevent dates of birth from being released in requests for public records.

The legislation has more to do with a long-fought battle between the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Olympia, and the Service Employees International Union, which represents state employees, in particular home health care workers, many of them family care givers of Medicaid recipients.

Senate Bill 6079 would do one simple thing, it would add the date of birth for state employees to the list of personal information that is exempt from release under the state’s Public Records Act. Supporters of the legislation say they want to exclude state employees’ dates of birth from such disclosure to protect their privacy.

But the legislation also is intended to frustrate the Freedom Foundation’s attempts to contact state employees, in particular home health care workers, and inform them that they are allowed to opt out of paying dues to unions. Caregivers don’t pay the dues directly; instead they’re deducted from the Medicaid payments. The foundation hopes to use the information on state employees’ dates of birth to help it match names with mailing addresses so it can make its pitch.

We’re less interested in the tug-of-war between the union and the think tank. The concern is greater regarding the potential weakening of the Public Records Act when weighed against the minimal privacy concerns about employee’s dates of birth.

Already, the Public Records Act protects the most sensitive personal information, including residential address, phone numbers, email addresses, Social Security numbers and emergency contact information. Identity thieves and others who intend someone harm aren’t going to get far with only someone’s name and his or her date of birth.

But a person’s date of birth can be of great use to the news media, says Rowland Thompson of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, which has long fought to protect the Public Records Act.

The date of birth has previously been used to verify identities of criminal justice employees who are arrested and charged, in investigations of crimes involving pension fraud and instances where protection of the interests of children and vulnerable adults are involved, such as background checks of school teachers, coaches and caregivers accused of sexual harassment and other abuses, among other concerns related to public employees.

And importantly, a birthdate allows the media to confirm identities and avoid confusion — and potential libel — when two or more people share a similar name.

Thompson, in testimony during a recent Senate hearing on the bill, noted a 2003 investigation by The Seattle Times that identified 159 coaches in the decade prior who had been fired or disciplined for rape or other sexual misconduct. The investigation, which used the birthdates in identifying the coaches, discovered that nearly 100 of the coaches were still employed by districts at the time of the report, according to a recent News Tribune story.

The Public Records Act has courts consider two points in determining if information would violate a person’s privacy: If the disclosure would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and if the disclosure of the information is not a legitimate concern to the public.

Prior court decisions have held that certain personal information is of legitimate public interest and is not exempt from release as part of a public records request.

The release of state employees’ dates of birth should be seen as being in the public interest and is not an intrusion into their privacy.

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