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Judge finds no constitutional privacy right in personnel files

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         OHIO         Freedom of Information         Oct 12, 2001    

Judge finds no constitutional privacy right in personnel files

  • A federal district judge ruled that denying the release of police department employment files to reporters would violate the First Amendment, softening the findings of an appeals panel that revelations from those files could violate a constitutional right of privacy.

A federal district court in Columbus held on Sept. 27 that Columbus city officials could not deny reporters’ requests to inspect certain information from police personnel files.

The judge reached his decision despite the conclusions of the appellate panel, which had sent the case back to the district court, that release of information from the police files could violate a “constitutional” right of privacy.

U.S. District Judge George C. Smith held that denying disclosure to news organizations would single out the media for hardship and hamper the First Amendment by preventing the news media from doing their job as government watchdog.

Smith based his decision on separate facts and arguments presented by 10 Ohio news organizations who joined the lawsuit after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) ruled in a case brought by individual police officers that the City of Columbus would violate their privacy rights if it released their files.

The case arose in September 1995 when three undercover narcotics officers of the Columbus Police Department served as prosecution witnesses for a trial involving the investigation of a violent Columbus gang. The city released their personnel files during the course of those trials.

The officers, including named plaintiff Melissa Kallstrom, sued the city seeking damages and to prevent further disclosure of personal information in the files. The officers stated that they did not want the city to release the files to media. The files contained, among other things, the officers’ banking account information and Social Security numbers.

The 6th Circuit unanimously held in February 1998 that the officers had a fundamental privacy right under the Constitution to the information in their personnel files. It held that the city’s disclosure of the information denied the officers that right. The case was sent back to the original trial court for a decision consistent with its findings.

A group of 10 Ohio news organizations then requested the officers’ personnel files, eventually joining the lawsuit when their request was denied. Their request did not seek the officers’ banking information and other recorded information specifically exempt from disclosure under Ohio open records laws.

(Kallstrom v. City of Columbus. Media counsel: David L. Marburger, Baker & Hostetler, Cleveland) MM

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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