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Cell phone records open but must be redacted

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   May 5, 2005

Cell phone records open but must be redacted

  • City council members’ taxpayer-paid cell phone bills are public records, but citizens’ private telephone numbers itemized in the bills must be redacted, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled Monday.

May 5, 2005  ·   City-paid cell phone bills of Pittsburgh city council members must be disclosed to records requesters with the numbers to and from citizens redacted, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled Monday.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Andrew Conte requested publicly paid cell phone records of Pittsburgh City Council members Leonard Bodack and Barbara Burns in October 2003.

The city refused the request, arguing that the bills’ release would invade the privacy of constituents whose phone numbers were itemized therein. Conte and the Tribune-Review Publishing Co., owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and five other Pennsylvania dailies, sued.

A state trial court ordered broad release of the bills in February 2004, and the city appealed.

Writing for the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Judge James J. Flaherty agreed with the city that itemized private constituent phone numbers must be redacted before the bills could be released.

Disclosure of the citizen numbers, whether incoming or outgoing from a city council member’s phone, “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy outweighing any public benefit derived from disclosure,” he ruled.

It was a surprising decision, said Ronald D. Barber, Conte’s lawyer, because in 1994 the same court said that outgoing calls from city council members’ phone were largely public. “The only issue that anyone felt was still alive was the incoming numbers, but the court rewrote the whole law in the area,” Barber said.

Privacy interests in one’s phone number were particularly strong “in this era when identity theft is a national problem,” Flaherty wrote.

People whom public officials called also had a privacy interest, Flaherty ruled, because the public would create a “perceived connection to the political, business, marital, competitive or other interests of the person receiving the call.”

In vague language that Barber worried might be interpreted to validate the suppression of more than just the phone numbers of individual constituents, Flaherty ordered the redaction of itemized phone numbers belonging to “people” before the bills were released. The judge did not distinguish between personal and business telephone numbers. In using the word “people” instead of “individual constituents” in crafting its redaction rule, the appellate court went beyond the factual record that had been developed in the lower court, Barber said.

The court’s ruling still permits Conte to obtain “the amounts that were caused by each council member, but with no idea as to whether those amounts were spent on the public’s business or on some other business,” Barber said. Conte originally wanted the records for a story on why Pittsburgh, a city on the brink of bankruptcy, was spending large sums of money on city council members’ cell phone bills.

An appeal is being considered.

(Tribune-Review Publishing Company v. Bodack; Media Counsel: Ronald D. Barber; Pittsburgh, Pa.)RL

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