High court overturns decision to disclose names on mailing list
WASHINGTON, D.C.–In a one-page summary opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-February overturned an unusual appeals court decision that had found the public’s interest in disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act of names and addresses on a government mailing list would outweigh any privacy interest of persons named in the records.
Overturning that decision before requesting briefs or hearing arguments from the parties, the Supreme Court found that the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) had issued a ruling “inconsistent” with the high court’s pronouncement in 1989 in Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, that in balancing public and private interests in questions concerning disclosure of information, government agencies can only consider the public’s interest in government operations and activities, in learning “what the government is up to.”
In most cases since that decision, the privacy interest of individuals has been found to outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure. However the appeals court in May, affirming the decision of a lower court, had ordered disclosed to the Oregon Natural Desert Association the Oregon Bureau of Land Management’s newsletter mailing list.
The appeals panel agreed with the environmental group requesting the list that the public has an interest in knowing to whom the government is directing information or “propaganda.” Disclosure of the names and addresses would have allowed the environmental group to mail more information to the persons on the list.
But the high court said that the purposes for which information is requested have no bearing on whether information must be disclosed. (Bibles v. Oregon Natural Desert Association; Plaintiff’s Attorney: Michael Axline, Eugene, Ore.)