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Navy can release information from commander's file

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

Navy can release information from commander’s file

  • A federal district judge held that the Privacy Act does not protect the release of information that would otherwise be disclosed through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

May 21, 2004 — A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled that the Navy can issue a press release and answer questions about the removal of a ship’s commander without violating his Privacy Act rights.

The Navy’s release of information about a commander involved in a highly destructive collision between a U.S. and Saudi Arabian ship did not violate the commander’s rights under the Privacy Act, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in late April. The federal Freedom of Information Act would have required disclosure of that information because of the public’s strong interest in it.

In February 1999, the destroyer Arthur Radford collided with the Saudi Arabian merchant ship Saudi Riyadh 25 miles off the shore of Virginia Beach, Va. Both ships suffered major damage.

Commander Daniel Chang had been in charge of the Radford for three months. He was removed from command following a non-judicial disciplinary hearing. When the Navy publicized the results of the hearing, Chang brought suit claiming the Navy had violated his rights under the Privacy Act by disseminating information from his personnel file.

However, Judge Paul Friedman held that such disclosure falls within an exception to the Privacy Act for information that can be released under the FOI Act. Friedman noted that although there is a privacy exemption to the FOI Act, it cannot be invoked if the public interest in disclosure outweighs personal privacy interests. The press release disclosing releasable information did not violate the commander’s rights, Friedman ruled.

The judge took into account that the collision was a “significant newsworthy event,” leading to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, two suits in admiralty courts involving the United States, and substantial media coverage, including publication of the accident online.

Chang had complained that the Navy withheld information about all other lower-level officers involved in the incident, but Friedman said Chang’s position as commander justified the release of his information. The public’s interest in Chang was greater than its interest in his subordinates, Friedman said.

Another federal judge had dismissed Chang’s case in 1999, finding that under the “Feres Doctrine,” established in a 1950 Supreme Court case, military personnel could not sue the government for injury incurred as a result of their active duty. But in 2002, a federal appeals panel ruled in reversing another case that military personnel may be entitled to recover for Privacy Act violations. It then sent Chang’s case back to the district court for a new decision in line with the appeals court ruling.

(Chang v. Department of the Navy) RD

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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