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Cause-of-death records must be made available to newspaper

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  1. Freedom of Information
Cause-of-death records must be made available to newspaper07/01/96 NEW JERSEY--The state Supreme Court in mid-June ruled that a New Jersey…

Cause-of-death records must be made available to newspaper

07/01/96

NEW JERSEY–The state Supreme Court in mid-June ruled that a New Jersey daily newspaper was entitled to obtain the complete death certificate of Timothy Wiltsey, a five-year-old boy whose body was found months after he disappeared in 1991.

The Department of Health argued that The Home News of East Brunswick was not entitled to cause-of-death information because a regulation limits its release to protect the confidentiality of those who die from AIDS, cancer, or birth defects. If this information was given out for non-AIDS cases, the department asserted, the public could easily infer who had died of AIDS.

The newspaper argued that the information should be public because suspicions of foul play had made the death a matter of public concern. Further, the Right-to-Know Law specifies that vital records are to be made available to “any applicant.”

But the Superior Court, Appellate Division in Trenton ruled that the limitation was a valid exercise of the Department’s authority to promulgate regulations.

The Supreme Court reversed. Instead of the Right-to-Know Law, it based its decision on a common-law right to inspect documents. Although a wider pool of documents falls within the sphere of the common law, the right is qualified by requiring that the public interest in disclosure must outweigh that in confidentiality.

The court found that to gain access to cause-of-death information the interest of the Home News need not be personal; its role as “the eyes and ears of the public” was sufficient. In contrast, the confidentiality interest was diminished by the fact that there was no suggestion that Timothy Wiltsey died of AIDS, cancer, or a birth defect. (The Home News v. New Jersey; Plaintiff’s Counsel: Thomas Cafferty, Somerset)