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Database on Columbus children tells ‘nothing about government’

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 26.

From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 26.

The names and addresses of children who participate in a city recreation program are not public information under the open records law, the state Supreme Court ruled in mid-April. And even if the information were public, the court said, releasing it would violate state and federal laws meant to protect the privacy rights of children.

The court said a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal Freedom of Information Act applies also to the state’s Open Records Law, and held that only government information showing what government is up to is public. A Columbus, Ohio, man said he originally had requested the information to identify potential recruits for the Boy Scouts of America.

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To help monitor who was using — and possibly vandalizing — its swimming pools, the city of Columbus began in May 1996 requiring children to register with the Recreation and Parks Department and to obtain identification cards in order to use the pools and other recreation facilities.

The city required parents of children participating in the program to give the names and addresses of their children, family and emergency-contact information and medical histories. The city later cited the registration program as a reason for a decrease in incidents of vandalism and violence at its facilities.

In November 1996, a Columbus man, Cornell McCleary, requested a copy of the electronic database that contained the names and addresses of the children registered with the Recreation and Parks Department. A parks department official, Wayne Roberts, refused the request. The following January, McCleary filed suit in state court in Columbus against Roberts and the parks department, seeking an order requiring the parks department to turn over the database.

McCleary argued the information was public under the state’s Public Records Law, but the parks department claimed that law did not apply to the database and that even if it did, its exemptions allowed the parks department to withhold the database. The trial court ruled in favor of the parks department, finding that the database, even though it was in the possession of the government, was not public. The court also suggested that if the database were public, at least some of the information it contained would constitute exempted medical information.

McCleary appealed to the appeals court in Columbus, winning a reversal of the trial court decision. The appeals court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to order the parks department to release the requested information. The parks department then appealed to the state Supreme Court in Columbus.

The parks department argued that the information contained in the database was not a “record” meant to be covered by the public records law, notwithstanding the fact that the government collected the information as part of an official program. Only information that documents a governmental entity’s policies, actions or procedures is considered a record meant to be made public under the law, the parks department said. McCleary focused instead on the definition for “public,” which

requires that information a governmental entity collects and maintains be released.

In ruling in favor of the parks department in April 2000, the state Supreme Court looked to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Department of Justice v. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for guidance in determining the scope and purpose of the state’s public records law. In that 1989 decision, the Supreme Court held that only information showing what a government was up to was public under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The parks department’s success with reducing vandalism and violence at its facilities and operation of its child registration program were already well known in the community, the state Supreme Court said. Releasing the database of children’s names and addresses would not reveal anything about the role the child registration program had in the parks department’s efforts to reduce vandalism and violence at its facilities, the state Supreme Court said.

“We fail to see how release of the requested information … would provide any further insight into the operation of the [parks department’s] photo identification program than that already available,” the Supreme Court said in its April 12 opinion. “Inherent in Ohio’s Public Records Law is the public’s right to monitor the conduct of government. However, in the instant matter, disclosing the requested information would do nothing to further the purposes of the act.”

The court also said that even if the information were public, state and federal privacy laws and constitutional protections prevented its release. Information contained in personnel files is protected from public release, the Supreme Court said, and it saw little reason not to apply a similar “good sense” rule to justify withholding the database in an attempt to protect children in this case. Acknowledging that it had no reason to fear McCleary would misuse the information, the Supreme Court said it was nonetheless worried about the possibility that the database information could be posted on the Internet and used by child molesters to target victims.

Dissenting in part, Justice Deborah Cook argued that the court’s ruling could result in future restrictions of access to government information. The court’s definition of what constituted a public record possibly was too narrow and seemed to ignore the spirit of the open records law, she said. She explained that case law protecting a person’s privacy rights and not an exemption to the statute justified withholding the database information.