Tuesday, November 08, 2011

We ALL Need to Be Careful

It has come to my attention that some recent links to documents from readers have contained personal information about SPS staff.  By that I mean things like addresses, personal numbers, etc. 

It is fine to provide links including items you may have received by public disclosure.  But the entities you receive them from don't always redact carefully. 

It is up to you, as the posting person, to make sure there is nothing there about that person that is personal information.  (And I think we know the difference between saying where a person went to school and where a person lives as personal information.) 

I don't always read all links (sorry).  I try to but it's not always possible.  If you read a link and see a red flag, please let us know right away and we will take it out. 

We may have some disagreements with various staff but we are going to try to be respectful of others' personal lives and information.  Please help us with that effort.  Thanks.

17 comments:

StopTFA said...

Like I said before, the information posted was what is allowable under the Public Records Act. One individual's interpretation of what is "appropriate" may differ from another's. If someone is in public service, benefits from public grants, and impacts the lives of students in public education, I say beware.

I find it ridiculous that a blog's standards are supposed to be higher than a public official acting under color of law. Public Records Officers do not take their mission lightly. They have helped reveal the turgid underbelly of some of our "public servants" in action. I do not subscribe to the adage of "collateral damage" but the law CLEARLY errs on the side of transparency over censorship or subterfuge.

Anonymous said...
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Melissa Westbrook said...

I don't have higher standards than a public official - I am saying that sometimes things don't get redacted that should have been. I am going to do my best to not be careless just because someone else might have been.

Redact out personal info and then post it. Grades, fine. Where someone lives, not fine. Any questions? You know how to contact us.

seattle citizen said...

I agree with StopTFA that it is permissable to post personal information such as addresses, etc, but really, is it necessary? One can self-censor - Just because you have the address of a person doesn't mean you have to spread it far and wide.
So I come down on the side of freedom of speech with what documents that are made public, and already supposedly redacted, but really, can't some discretion be used? If it is relevant to a thread, or to an investigation or pursuit of some greater truth, perhaps then it is more necessary to post an address. But I can't, offhand, think of a time when an actual street address would advance discourse.

It's fine to say someone on the eastside is funding a Seattle board director's run for re-election: It's hardly necessary to say she/he lives at such and such street number, Hunts Point...

In The Know said...

@seattle citizen: "I agree with StopTFA that it is permissable to post personal information such as addresses, etc, but really, is it necessary?"

I don't know the specifics that thsi conversation is referring to. But, while you may think it is permissable, it is not allowable. I am not a lawyer, and don't know if a person could sue you for disclosing their address, but I know enough to say that the law says the information should have been withheld from whoever received it if it was the result of a public records request. RCW 42.56.230 says in part:

"(2) Personal information, including but not limited to, addresses, telephone numbers, personal electronic mail addresses, social security numbers, emergency contact and date of birth information for a participant in a public or nonprofit program serving or pertaining to children, adolescents, or students, including but not limited to early learning or child care services, parks and recreation programs, youth development programs, and after-school programs. Emergency contact information may be provided to appropriate authorities and medical personnel for the purpose of treating the individual during an emergency situation;

(3) Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy;"


Also, RCW 42.56.050 defines Invasion of Privacy as:

"A person's "right to privacy," "right of privacy," "privacy," or "personal privacy," as these terms are used in this chapter, is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public. The provisions of this chapter dealing with the right to privacy in certain public records do not create any right of privacy beyond those rights that are specified in this chapter as express exemptions from the public's right to inspect, examine, or copy public records."

Note that RCW Chapter 42 deals concerns the Public Records Act.

So an argument can be made that you are posting personal information that is invading someone's privacy (presuming this is all about someone's address - again I didn't see the origin of this conversation). But, I would say instead of resorting to arguments (can't we all just get along?), I would say err on the side of caution and decency and not post personal information that should not have been provided to you in the first place. I would also suggest you let the public records officer know that they missed redacting the information.

StopTFA said...

As I said on a previous thread, I discussed this matter with the OSPI PRO. The Public Records Act is very broad with very specific statutory exemptions and other exemptions under case law. She said it is clear that "applications" are not protected under any specific exemption in the RCW. She said that in future, a student ID number may be redacted, but not much else. Essentially, this is a living breathing law that changes through case law and serves the greater good more than it impinges on privacy issues.

Here's an interesting variant. The UW College of Education is withholding what it deems "unfunded grant proposals" it made to the usual billionaires to beg for money for its TFA U-ACT program. Now this exemption is to prevent public loss or lead to private gain in the area of proprietary research and patents. Totally not the case here (unless the COE thinks they can use Bezos money to patent a new mediocre TFA teacher prep program that'll lead to millions in royalties or higher enrollments. I hardly think that's at stake. Even if they sought to protected valuable formulae, hypotheses and data, they must redact very narrowly and provide the documents to the public.

So, I would say for every questionable release of data, there's ten times more that is withheld or shredded.

This is a worthwhile debate and is at the heart of a democratic society.

armchair QB said...

The application may not have been protected but the addy phone and email within it were. The PRO made a mistake. It happens.

StopTFA said...

RCW 42.56.230

The following personal information is exempt from public inspection and copying under this chapter:

(1) Personal information in any files maintained for students in public schools, patients or clients of public institutions or public health agencies, or welfare recipients;

(2) Personal information, including but not limited to, addresses, telephone numbers, personal electronic mail addresses, social security numbers, emergency contact and date of birth information for a participant in a public or nonprofit program serving or pertaining to children, adolescents, or students, including but not limited to early learning or child care services, parks and recreation programs, youth development programs, and after-school programs. Emergency contact information may be provided to appropriate authorities and medical personnel for the purpose of treating the individual during an emergency situation;

(3) Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy;


(4) Information required of any taxpayer in connection with the assessment or collection of any tax if the disclosure of the information to other persons would: (a) Be prohibited to such persons by RCW 84.08.210, 82.32.330, 84.40.020, 84.40.340, or any ordinance authorized under RCW 35.102.145; or (b) violate the taxpayer's right to privacy or result in unfair competitive disadvantage to the taxpayer;

(5) Credit card numbers, debit card numbers, electronic check numbers, card expiration dates, or bank or other financial account numbers, except when disclosure is expressly required by or governed by other law;

(6) Personal and financial information related to a small loan or any system of authorizing a small loan in RCW 31.45.093; and

(7) Documents and related materials and scanned images of documents and related materials used to prove identity, age, residential address, social security number, or other personal information required to apply for a driver's license or identicard.

Items 2 and 3 do not apply. Again, applicants are not employees. The PRO is the best I've worked with and did not make a mistake.

I agree that, for purposes of advocacy for strong public education, publishing personal information does not add to the debate.

armchair QB said...

At the time of the disclosure, the applicant *was* a district employee and his/her personal information should have been redacted.

StopTFA said...

Armchair,

The district did not release these records. OSPI released records of permit applicants. Not the same.

Armchair QB said...

district employees are public employees, period. OSPI is bound by the same state statute as the district and should have redacted the personal information of the public employee. A mistake was made.

StopTFA said...

BTW #3 means an employment file. But I won't quibble with you further. I would place this public records officer's knowledge over yours anyday.

also bothered by this said...

BTW #3 means an employment file. But I won't quibble with you further. I would place this public records officer's knowledge over yours anyday.

You're more or less implying that this person never makes a mistake. I think that's a dangerous assumption, even if they are professional and competent. I am not a practicing attorney, but I did spend some time studying law and have spent many years working with (and against) more than my share of attorneys and complex contracts.

There are legal cracks and conflicts in every system of laws. In those cases one must look to the "intent of law" as well as the "letter of the law". In this case I agree with In The Know that sections 2 and 3 of RCW 42.56.230, along with RCW 42.56.50 make a strong case for redacting data like address/phone number of applicants.

Here's an example of how letter vs. intent can be relevant: .230 states that "employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency" are granted certain exemptions. This is true even though they work for us and have thus necessarily given up some level of privacy. However, as you stated, there is not a specific callout for applicants. So what is the intent? Should we presume that private citizens have less right to privacy than public servants? Highly unlikely.

As armchairQB said, the application itself doesn't need to be exempted, but that does not mean all personal data on such forms should be made public. Especially when it's not relevant to public interest.

StopTFA, I'm sure you have spent more time dealing with public records disclosure than I have (and I'm thankful you have), but don't lose sight of the fact that there are gray areas in all aspects of law, and one set of laws (PRA) doesn't trump another (Privacy). They are all important.

StopTFA said...

This law, like most, is open to interpretation by the courts. Unlike others, both the courts AND the Legislature have purposefully made this law as broad as possible. A court ruling that exemplifies this is the following:

125 Wn.2d 243, PAWS v. UW

"The Public Records Act begins with a mandate of full disclosure of public records; that mandate is then limited only by the precise, specific, and limited exemptions which the Act provides. (While generally mandating full disclosure, the Act is not without exemptions from disclosure. Since its adoption, the number of exemptions has increased from 10 in the original initiative to 40-odd exemptions today. Compare Laws of 1973, ch. 1 with RCW 42.17.310-.31902.)

Notwithstanding the increasing number of specific exemptions, the Legislature has never adopted an all-purpose or open-ended exemption. To the contrary, the Act's exemptions are highly specific, limited and carefully crafted. See RCW 42.17.310(1)(a)-(ee); RCW 42.17.312-.31902.
As we noted in Spokane Police Guild:
'[W]e start with the proposition that the act establishes an affirmative duty to disclose public records unless the records fall within specific statutory exemptions or prohibitions. It follows that in an action brought pursuant to the injunction statute (RCW 42.17.330), the initial determination will ordinarily be whether the information involved is in fact within one of the act's exemptions or within some other statute which exempts or prohibits disclosure of specific information or records.' 112 Wn.2d at 36.

Indeed, the Legislature's response to our decision in In re Rosier, supra, establishes that the Public Records Act contains no general "vital governmental functions" exemption. In Rosier, this court interpreted general language in a procedural section of the Act concerning personal privacy to create a general personal privacy exemption. 105 Wn.2d at 611-14. The Legislature specifically overturned that holding. Laws of 1987, ch. 403, § 1, p. 1546. By doing so, the Legislature explicitly restored:

'the law relating to the release of public records largely to that which existed prior to the Washington Supreme Court decision in "In re Rosier," . . . The intent of this legislation is to make clear that . . . agencies having public records should rely only upon statutory exemptions or prohibitions for refusal to provide public records.'"


I am happy for this opportunity to clarify this law that is so critical for open government.

Option said...

why not make folks register their email address and get a screen name like other blogs and newspapers do?
This will at least provide some accountability.

Armchair QB said...

The record (i.e. the application) was released as it should have been. The issue is whether the PPI within in it (email, phone, address) should have been redacted since the request was regarding a CURRENT PUBLIC EMPLOYEE. If, heaven forbid, the public employee was harrassed or otherwise intimidated as a result of his/her address, telephone number or email being released when there was no compelling need to do so, the state can be held resonsible. Again, this isn't about the withholding of records. A public employee's home address, home telephone number and personal email address is not a "public record". It's protected personal information - private.

Armchair QB said...

ETA - It's also important to recognize that the application for conditional certification was submitted not by the TFA'er him/herself but by the district which attached documents from the employee's personnel file (resume, transcripts, etc.).

If you read the Sec. State Web site, those types of personnel records are specifically excluded unless there is a compelling interest (which, when interpreted broadly, there likely is in this instance). Still, the bar one has to reach for releasing home address, telephone, and email info. is much higher and has not been reached.

http://www.atg.wa.gov/OpenGovernment/InternetManual/Chapter2.aspx

http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=42.56.250

Public employees (and I have been one for many years) make mistakes all the time. And when it comes to public records requests in WA, many PROs are very lenient. That doesn't make them right.