ACLU says new law infringes on free speech rights.Richmond, VA - In federal court today, a lawyer with the Office of the Virginia Attorney General agreed temporarily not to enforce a new state law against privacy activist B.J. Ostergren. The law prohibits dissemination of public records that contain Social Security Numbers, even when the records are obtained from government websites available to anyone.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia had asked the court to issue an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect, as scheduled, on July 1, but that became unnecessary once the Attorney General’s office agreed not to enforce the law until a full hearing on its constitutionality takes place on July 24.
The ACLU represents privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren, who runs a website that advocates against making personal information available on the Internet. Ostergren’s website, TheVirginiaWatchdog.com, contains public records obtained from government websites that include the Social Security Numbers of public officials. By posting these documents, Ostergren hopes to prod government policy makers to take action to prevent Social Security Numbers from being posted online.
“Both the ACLU and Ms. Ostergren support laws that prevent the government from allowing Social Security Numbers to appear on publicly accessible websites,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “but the government can’t make these records available to the public then restrict what the public does with them. That violates free speech.”
Under a different law, circuit court clerks across the state are required to make all land records available on the Internet starting tomorrow. Land records are made up of deeds and mortgage information, but may also include legal judgments, such as divorce decrees, that may contain Social Security Numbers and other personal information.
The ACLU lawsuit, filed on June 11, points out that shutting down Ostergren’s website will do nothing to protect Social Security Numbers, since all of the documents on her site are also available on government websites. In the 1989 case The Florida Star v. B.J.F., the Supreme Court observed that “where the government has made certain information publicly available, it is highly anomalous to sanction persons other than the source of its release.”
ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg argued the case for Ms. Ostergren today. U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Payne presided. A copy of the ACLU’s complaint can be found online at http://www.acluva.org/docket/pleadings/ostergren_complaint.pdf.
Contacts: Kent Willis or Rebecca K. Glenberg, (o) 804/644-8022