Birth date privacy interests outweigh interest in disclosure
ARIZONA–In late March, the Supreme Court of Arizona in Phoenix held that numerous Maricopa County school districts properly withheld full-time and substitute teachers’ birth dates from a television station that was investigating whether any convicted criminals were employed as teachers.
The teachers have a privacy interest in their birth dates that outweighs the public interest in disclosure, even though birth dates are available from other public sources, the high court ruled.
In 1994, Mesa television station KPNX discovered that a substitute teacher was a registered sex offender. The station requested the names and birth dates of all teachers on the county’s payroll to determine if any others had criminal records. The birth dates would be used to verify any match of a teacher’s name with an identical name in court records.
The school districts disclosed the names but refused to provide the birth dates, and instead filed a lawsuit in the superior court in Phoenix. The trial court ruled that the birth dates were private and should only be disclosed with the teachers’ consent.
The court of appeals reversed and ordered the information disclosed, which led to another appeal and the high court’s decision that the records do not have to be released.
The court noted that birth dates are private information. They are typically restricted to family and friends, and are only divulged when used as a prerequisite for certain benefits such as retirement plans or health insurance, the court said.
Moreover, birth dates are used as identifying information. Coupled with a name they can provide access to personal data such as a driving record, political party affiliation and credit history, the court noted.
The privacy interest in birth dates does not disappear merely because that information may be available from public documents, the court said.
The public has an interest in knowing whether the school districts employ teachers with criminal records. However, that interest is outweighed by the invasion of privacy disclosure of the birth dates would cause, the court said.
When the requester is “unable to provide any basis at all for believing that [a teacher with a criminal record] might exist among the thousands of individuals whose legitimate expectations of privacy are sought to be invaded, the public interest in disclosure is at best speculative,” the court wrote. The availability of that information from other sources also reduces the need for public disclosure, the court found. (Scottsdale Unified School District v. KPNX Broadcasting Co.; Media Counsel: Daniel Barr, Phoenix)