Ohio high court holds Social Security numbers exempt from disclosure
OHIO — The Ohio Supreme Court in late October ruled 4-3 that the city of Akron can delete Social Security numbers from computer tape records of the city’s payroll it makes public. The court reversed an appellate ruling.
The Ohio Public Records Act exempts from mandatory disclosure “records the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law.” The high court said disclosure of Social Security numbers would violate “a federal constitutional right to privacy.”
Akron Beacon Journal projects editor Robert Paynter in May 1992 asked Akron’s finance director for a tape of the city’s master payroll. The director supplied the tape with social security numbers deleted, saying the numbers were not “records” covered by the records act and also that disclosure would violate personal privacy rights.
In August 1992 the newspaper sued in the Summit County Court of Appeals in Akron, which ordered the city to disclose the numbers.
The city appealed in May 1994, again claiming that the numbers were not records subject to the act and that their release would be an invasion of privacy. The Public Citizen Litigation Group and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to deny the information.
Judge Richard Pfeifer found that, although the numbers were records covered by the Act, they were not public records since their disclosure would violate a federal right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution. He said the U.S. Supreme Court articulated that right in the case involving public access to tape recordings from the Richard Nixon presidency. It protects against government disclosure of “the private details of one’s life,” he said.
Justice Andy Douglas wrote for the dissent that the majority had “invented” an exemption to the Ohio public records law. No provision in Ohio law or its constitution or in federal law or the U.S. Constitution supports withholding of social security numbers, he wrote.
The newspaper has filed for reconsideration.
(State ex. rel. Beacon Journal v. City of Akron; Media Counsel: Amie Bruggeman, Akron)