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Publication of names of sex offenders not an invasion of privacy

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    NMU         KANSAS         Freedom of Information         Nov 29, 1999    

Publication of names of sex offenders not an invasion of privacy

  • A state law that makes the identities of sex offenders a matter of public record does not violate the privacy rights of the individuals whose names are released and published on the Internet.

A state law requiring the disclosure of the identities of sex offenders under the Open Records Act is not an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, a Kansas appeals court ruled in late November.

Thomas E. Stevens, who pleaded no contest to a count of “indecent liberties with a child,” lost his challenge to a 1998 law that established a registry of sex offenders and requires the disclosure of the registry’s list under the state’s open records law.

Stevens had argued before the Court of Appeals in Topeka that disclosure of the names on the registry, in general — and the publishing of the registry on the Internet, in particular — were unconstitutional invasions of personal privacy.

The sex-offender registry law specifically requires that “statements or any other information required by this act shall be open to inspection.” The court said the legislative intent requiring the release of this information was obvious. Furthermore, it said, distribution of the registry information on the Internet satisfied the Open Records Act’s requirement of broad disclosure of information in a manner that would not disrupt a law enforcement agency’s essential functions.

The court said it must presume that a law is constitutional, absent evidence that the legislature acted irrationally or that the law was clearly beyond the bounds of constitutionality. The sex-offender registry law, the court said, is constitutional.

“Wide dissemination of sex offender registration information is not wholly irrelevant to the State’s purpose,” the court said.

The court declined to recognize a broad right to privacy that would prevent the state from releasing truthful yet embarrassing personal information, as Stevens had urged the court to do. While some states have found that disclosing the identities of people who have committed minor sex offenses might invade the offenders’ right to privacy, the fact that Kansas had not recognized such a right did not mean its law was unconstitutional, the court said.

“A strong argument can be made for requiring a court to determine a level of risk involved on a case-by-case basis and then determining to what degree the State is allowed to impinge on an individual’s right to privacy to better ensure public safety. We can assume here that the legislature carefully studied such a proposal and rejected it,” the court said.

(Kansas v. Stevens)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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