Marines can withhold North’s records under privacy exemption
WASHINGTON, D.C.–The public’s interest in knowing whether congressional candidate Oliver North was fit to hold office did not outweigh his privacy interests in certain medical and disciplinary service records, a federal District Court in Washington, D.C. ruled in early August. The judge said the records were properly withheld under the privacy exemption to the Freedom of Information Act.
Judge Stanley Sporkin said the U.S. Marine Corps could withhold records from North’s file from journalist and author Linda Hunt.
When North was challenging Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) in a close 1994 race for his seat in the U.S. Senate, Hunt filed an FOI request for North’s service records. Relying on news stories dating back to 1986 that North in 1974 had suffered an “emotional illness” while he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy and had then tried to destroy records of the illness, Hunt began working on a story that questioned North’s fitness for office.
The Marine Corps withheld numerous records including all of North’s medical records and documents that concerned his possible assignment to quarters, his availability for duty and his Field Service Record Book.
Hunt sued, asking the court to order the records released to the public so that it could assess his “character or fitness to hold office.”
Sporkin said that while the public may indeed have an interest in a particular candidate’s fitness to hold office, that interest would not justify disclosure of records under the FOI Act. Citing the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in the Reporters Committee v. Department of Justice, he said the only public interest that could be balanced against North’s privacy interest was information that would “shed light on the agency’s performance of its statutory duties.” (Hunt v. U.S. Marine Corps; Media counsel: James Lesar, Washington, D.C.)