Washington Legislature Public Records

FILE — Paul J. Lawrence, attorney for the Legislature, addresses justices during a hearing before the Washington Supreme Court on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Olympia, Wash.

This editorial originally appeared in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin:

As more personal information about our lives floats through cyberspace, concerns about privacy have grown — and with good reason.

But the effort by unions representing state workers to shield employees’ dates of birth from being a public record is shortsighted if not misguided.

Knowing an employee’s birthdate is critical to properly identifying that person who is working for taxpayers.

Recently, the state Supreme Court ruled birthdates of public employees are open public records.

This ruling is a victory for those who believe, as we do, that government must be transparent as it does our business. This also affirms the intent of the 1972 voter-

approved Public Records Act.

The majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling by the state’s high court, which was written by Justice Debra Stephens, said that neither the Opens Record Act nor the state constitution exempts employee birthdates from disclosure.

“Birthdates are often important in matters of public concern,” Stephens wrote for the court, noting that reporting by The Seattle Times used this information to expose coaches who sexually assaulted students and, in another series of reports, expose state employees who were “double dipping” — drawing pensions and employment income simultaneously.

“These examples underscore that disclosure of birthdates often serves the public interest in transparency and oversight,” the ruling said.

A person’s date of birth is not highly sensitive personal information, nor does it open the door to identity theft. It can be found on many public records. Most, if not all, of our birthdates can be found somewhere.

But while date of birth alone isn’t enough to trigger identity theft, it is a critical piece of information necessary to eliminate ambiguity about which Jane Q. Public or John Q. Public you are looking into.

The case that went before the high court wasn’t about identity theft; it was essentially a battle between state employee unions and a conservative group that is trying to reduce public-sector union membership.

The Freedom Foundation has used public-records requests to obtain personal information about union members. The organization then uses that information to contact members and tell them they’re not obligated to pay union dues.

That’s not a reason to keep information from the public. The Supreme Court’s ruling in this case was sound and upheld the public’s right to its information.