On Tuesday, the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations conducted a hearing in which they talked about your birthday. There was no cake or candles or balloons, nor any embarrassing “Just how old are you?” comments from friends or coworkers. Loud, off-key renditions of “Happy Birthday”? Nope.
The subject matter wasn’t your birthday, as such.
Instead, what’s on the table was House Bill 1888, an arguably well-meaning but certainly misguided attempt to protect certain parts of what some people might consider private information — specifically, dates of birth of public employees across Washington — from continuing to be public information.
Yes, continuing. It’s public information now and has been for a while. This was confirmed in October when the state Supreme Court held that public records that included state employees’ birth dates are not exempt from disclosure under the 1972 Public Records Act.
Let’s keep it that way. We urge a sound rejection of HB 1888 and ask our state lawmakers to look suspiciously and cynically upon any such legislation that attempts to weaken public disclosure.
Media outlets such as the Yakima Herald-Republic naturally favor as much openness and public information as possible. The quashing of any type of such data makes it much tougher if not impossible for us to do our jobs. And a big part of our job is reporting on public entities — state, county and municipal governments; school districts; public utility districts, etc. — and holding them accountable for how they function, deal with the public and spend tax dollars. Without the media, such entities would be free to police themselves and to reveal what they want, when they want.
But … birthdays? Really?
Let’s talk about it.
HB 1888, introduced by two Democratic lawmakers from the Seattle area, would exempt dates of birth of government workers and volunteers from public disclosure and would require a governmental entity to notify a worker if his or her personal information is the subject of a public-records request.
The Washington Public Employees Association and other unions that represent public workers are in favor of this legislation, arguing that the right to privacy should include shielding birth dates from the eyes of the prying public. Specifically, union officials cite concerns about identity theft and the wish to protect those among their ranks who have been victims of domestic violence.
Much concern also centers on the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been using public data — including dates of birth — in a campaign to contact public employees and tell them they have no obligation to pay union dues.
Public unions will always have supporters and detractors, but this is just a sidebar to our concern regarding this bill.
First of all, this so-called private information isn’t private at all. We reveal our birth dates to our bank, to other financial institutions, to our friends and family, perhaps to our places of worship. Maybe your birthday is posted on your Facebook page or other social media. It’s printed on your driver’s license. Birth dates are readily available on countless other public records, including voter registration records, which political parties and candidates frequently use. Would-be ID thieves or perpetrators of violence have lots of ways to find them; access to birth dates alone does not lead to identity theft.
More specific to the YH-R and others in the media is, as stated before, the ability to do our jobs and serve our readers. And there are times when tracking dates of birth proves vital to our research.
The Seattle Times, the largest newspaper in the Northwest and the owner of the Yakima Herald-Republic, found that tracing dates of birth proved essential to reporters in 2002-03 in their “Coaches who Prey” series as they revealed the movements of dozens of high school and club coaches across Washington who were sexually preying on their athletes and essentially getting away with it. Once caught, the coaches often would go uninvestigated and/or be quietly dismissed, leaving them free to find another position of trust — and begin grooming new victims.
In another exclusive, this one published in 2010, The Times used birth dates to identify at least 40 public university and college employees who had found a loophole in state retirement laws that let them retire, then reacquire their previous job, allowing them to collect a full salary as well as their pension.
Debra Stephens, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, wrote in her Oct. 24 opinion on the public-records case in question: “To be exempt under the PRA, birth date information must be classified as ‘not of legitimate concern to the public.’ However, birth dates are often important in matters of public concern.” She went on to cite those two Times stories, concluding: “These examples underscore that disclosure of birth dates often serves the public interest in transparency and oversight.”
What she said. Arguments in favor of exempting birth dates do not hold up. Our legislators should be working to promote transparency, not limit it.