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Government will not release names of fatal accident victims

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  1. Freedom of Information

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Nov. 22, 2005

Government will not release names of fatal accident victims

  • The living relatives of two juveniles killed on public parkland have a privacy interest that trumps the public’s interest in their names, particularly since the request is from a newspaper, the Department of Interior said in denying a Freedom of Information Act request appeal.

Nov. 22, 2005  ·   The Department of the Interior will not release the names of two juveniles killed in accidents on public land and other information in the reports of those accidents, even after The Salt Lake Tribune appealed the denial of its request to the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In denying the newspaper’s appeal of a request for the names under the Freedom of Information Act, Interior officials said in late October that there was no “compelling evidence of government misconduct” that would warrant release of the names, and that the juveniles’ living relatives have a privacy interest in the names and the details of the youngsters’ deaths being secret.

Reporter Brent Israelsen said that in the past the newspaper received names of juvenile accident victims from the National Park Service itself and has press releases from NPS offices as recently as this year describing fatal accidents and identifying juvenile victims. From December to July, the agency released the names of at least 10 juveniles who died in accidents in national parks, the newspaper reported.

The newspaper requested reports for the two fatal accidents — on June 17 and June 28 — but the chief ranger of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area would not release victims’ names, The Tribune reported.

The FOI appeals officer for the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., cited the privacy arm of the law enforcement exemption to the act (Exemption 7(c)). “[While] the individuals who were killed in each of the accidents do not have cognizable privacy interests” in having information withheld, their living relatives “have significant privacy interests in withholding information in the incident reports that identifies their deceased relatives,” the decision stated.

“Further, the fact that you submitted your FOIA request and appeal on behalf of a newspaper presents a substantial probability that disclosure of the decedents’ information to you will interfere with the living relatives’ personal privacy.”

“We’re considering what course of action to take,” said Tom Baden, executive editor of The Tribune. “We haven’t decided what to do.”

Darrell R. Strayhorn, FOI Act appeals officer for the Department of the Interior, said that her ruling is consistent with previous decisions from appeals of denials.

“I’ve been at the Department of the Interior for six years and this has been our position,” Strayhorn said.

Because The Tribune did not offer “compelling evidence” that the information requested would confirm or deny government misconduct, the department can deny the request for information from law enforcement records where privacy interests are involved, Strayhorn said.

“The Department of the Interior has not diverted from any of its previous determinations on this issue,” she said.

In March 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in National Archives and Records Administration v. Favish, a case involving pictures of the body of the late deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, that survivors do have a privacy interest in protecting “death images” in order “to secure their own refuge from a sensation-seeking culture.” When that cognizable survivors’ privacy interest is found, it must be weighed against the public’s interest in disclosure, which the high court described as a “belief by a reasonable person” that “a government impropriety might have occurred.” The high court said that requesters do not have to present “clear evidence” of government wrongdoing in order for the public’s interest in disclosure to outweigh the privacy interest.

Utah media lawyer Jeffrey Hunt told The Tribune: “The public does have an interest in learning about the identity of individuals who die on public lands and the circumstances under which they died. This [Tribune] FOIA request goes right to that issue.”


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