Privacy Act bars disclosure of home addresses, Supreme Court rules
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late February that federal unions cannot get home addresses of agency workers within bargaining units because the federal Privacy Act bars disclosure. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion.
The union had argued that the addresses should be released under an exemption to the Privacy Act that allows disclosures required by the federal Freedom of Information Act.
But the court ruled that the FOI Act’s privacy exemption (Exemption 6), protects home addresses from mandatory release under the open records law. Citing the court-made rule laid down in 1989 in Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee, Thomas wrote that in balancing public and private interests to determine whether to invoke the privacy exemption, agencies only can consider on the public side the public’s interest in knowing what the government is “up to.”
The unions argued unsuccessfully that the law governing collective bargaining by federal employees mandates that agencies furnish the unions with data relevant to helping employees understand the subject matter of the bargaining. Promoting employee understanding of the collective bargaining process serves a strong public interest, they said. That interest compels the release of the addresses so that the union can contact employees and explain what is going on, they argued, particularly when weighed against the minor privacy interest in protecting addresses.
The United Food And Commercial Workers Union Local 1657 in Gulfport, Miss., serving the Navy Exchange there, and the American Federation of Government Employees representing employees at the Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado each requested home addresses of federal employees within their bargaining units in 1988. The Defense Department denied the requests but the Federal Labor Relations Authority ordered the addresses released.
At the FLRA’s request the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) in October 1992 ordered the Department of Defense to provide the addresses, but FLRA appealed to the Supreme Court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a concurring opinion pointed out that the privacy exemption cited in the Reporters Committee case involved law enforcement records (Exemption 7c). She questioned whether the court should consider only the public’s interest in government operations and activities in weighing public and private interests under the privacy exemption (Exemption 6).
(FLRA v. Department of Defense)