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Open records law exemption does not cover health statistics

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         ILLINOIS         Freedom of Information         Apr 25, 2001    

Open records law exemption does not cover health statistics

  • A state appeals court ruling allows a newspaper to continue its investigation of cancer rates because the public benefit of knowing the information outweighs the personal privacy concerns.

An Illinois appellate court has determined that a newspaper is entitled to statistical data from the state’s cancer registry because releasing the information does not invade the patient’s privacy.

The state Department of Health refused to release the data in 1997 when the Southern Illinoisan wanted to investigate the prevalence of neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer, since 1985. For each case, the newspaper requested the type of cancer, the zip code of the patient and the date of diagnosis. The newspaper wanted this information to determine if “there are clusters of neuroblastoma in Southern Illinois, similar to the cluster in Taylorville,” a small town about 25 miles southeast of the state capital Springfield.

The decision by the court of appeals on March 28 confirmed an early ruling by a circuit court ordering the department to produce the statistical data for the newspaper. The circuit court, however, instructed the newspaper not to use the information to “attempt to identify or contact cancer patients.”

The court of appeals said the data did not meet an exemption in the state open records law that keeps confidential records that would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

In this case, the court said the privacy interest was minimal and that the release of the statistics for the newspaper investigation presented a great public benefit. Finally, the appeals court said, the department had to release the records because the newspaper could not obtain them from an alternate source.

One claim by the department caused the court to pause. An affidavit filed by an expert claimed that persons could be identified from the statistical information, even though the information did not contain names or addresses. The court noted that information is exempt from the open records law if it is prohibited from release under other state or federal law. Because the law that enacted the cancer registry prohibits release of “facts that tends to lead to the identity” of patients, the court remanded the case back to the lower court to determine if the statistical information could be used to identify individuals.

(Southern Illinoisan v. Department of Public Health; Media Counsel: Donald M. Craven, Craven & Thornton, Springfield, Ill.) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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