The city of Kirkland, Washington has decided it doesn't want publicly-available information about its police officers to be, well, public. On May 14, Kirkland's lawyers at Preston Gates sent me a letter ordering me to delete three Social Security numbers from a Politech article.
I believe journalists and others generally should have the right to reprint information from public court documents, and attempts to curtail the First Amendment in the name of privacy go too far. The fine folks at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press put me in touch with Davis Wright Tremaine, which responded with a letter saying that journalists should be allowed to republish information they obtained lawfully. But Kirkland was undeterred, saying in their reply that they "stand by" their cease-and-desist threat.
This case is important because it highlights how nebulous "privacy rights" are being used to limit free expression. Instead of trying to muzzle reporters, society should be trying to eliminate the Social Security number's widespread use as a personal identifier, which it was not intended to be. (Rep. Ron Paul's Identity Theft Protection Act is a good start.) If Kirkland gets its way, this precedent could be used to prevent reporters from printing other personal information, such as home addresses or ages, that they find newsworthy or relevant in their coverage.
Washington, DC / May 18, 2001
Cease and desist letter from Kirkland p1
Cease and desist letter from Kirkland p2 (5/14/2001) (larger)
Response to Kirkland from Davis Wright Tremaine (5/16/2001)
Kirkland replies, says they "stand by" original letter (5/16/2001) (larger)
Politech article in question (5/11/2001)
Judge Alsdorf's opinion re: SSNs (5/10/2001)
Justicefiles.org defense motion (5/4/2001)
article on Kirkland threats to Politech (5/18/2001)
Seattle Times article on Kirkland lawsuit against justicefiles.org (4/2/2001)
Seattle Times article on justicefiles.org controversy (3/21/2001)
Clinton administration report on financial privacy (Recommends suppressing SSNs in bankruptcy records before they are released to the public.)
Sen. Feinstein's 2000 bill to limit the sale of Social Security numbers
Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989) (The First Amendment prohibits imposition of liability for publication of rape victim's name that was legally obtained from a police report):
"When a State attempts the extraordinary measure of punishing truthful publication in the name of privacy, it must demonstrate its commitment to advancing this interest by applying its prohibition evenhandedly, to the smalltime disseminator as well as the media giant. Where important First Amendment interests are at stake, the mass scope of disclosure is not an acceptable surrogate for injury."