MAINE — The Fish and Wildlife Service must make the home addresses of private landowners who sold their land to the agency available to a member of a property rights organization in Maine, the federal district court in Bangor ruled in mid-April.
The court rejected the federal government’s arguments that the home addresses were exempt from disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act as an intrusion on personal privacy of the named individuals.
Instead it ruled that disclosure would help the public learn about the activities of a government agency, serving a public interest that outweighed any privacy considerations. Release of the addresses to Bo Thott would enable him to seek out the landowners’ “side of the story” in their negotiations with the agency that led to their selling their land.
In January 1993, Thott filed FOI Act requests with the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service for the names and addresses of persons who had sold land to those Department of Interior Agencies. The Park Service granted the request in full and the Fish and Wildlife Service released the names but denied the request insofar as it concerned addresses for private individuals, citing the FOI Act’s personal privacy exemption (Exemption 6).
Thott used the address list from the Park Service to survey the individual sellers and published a pamphlet titled “Willing Seller Willing Buyer,” which characterized the Park Service as unfair in its dealings with the public for land. He sent the pamphlet to the media and to property rights groups around the country.
After the Interior Department rejected Thott’s appeal of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s denial, Thott in July sued for the information.
The government argued that the names and addresses themselves did not reveal anything about government activities and so served no public interest.
Thott argued that the addresses would be used as a mailing list for a survey similar to that he had conducted on the Park Service, and noted that the only way he could obtain information about the dealings for land, aside from the agency’s records of its own position, was through contacting the sellers.
(Thott v. Department of the Interior; Media Counsel: Fred Costlow, Bangor)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.