NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Freedom of Information · April 2, 2007
Redaction of Social Security numbers not mandatory
April 2, 2007 · Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill last week that removes any requirement of government officials to redact the Social Security numbers of living citizens from a public record before that record can be released.
Perry’s action culminates the swift action of the Texas Legislature, which moved to clarify this point of law after the state attorney general said in February that county officials could face civil and criminal liability for improperly releasing Social Security numbers. That opinion led county and court clerks around Texas to curtail public access to information, including pulling many property records off the Internet, while they figured out how to redact Social Security numbers on millions of documents dating back decades.
Responding to the complaints, state Attorney General Greg Abbott suspended his opinion for two months while the Legislature resolved the issue.
Under the new law, Social Security numbers of living people are still “exempt” from the Texas Public Information Act, but they are no longer “confidential,” meaning the government official has discretion to release the information. The law also absolves those officials from civil or criminal liability for releasing the numbers, so long as the disclosure is “contained in information held by the clerk’s office” and is released “in the ordinary course of business.”
The law shifts the burden to individual citizens to make written requests for the redaction of their Social Security numbers from specific documents.
In a statement announcing his signing of the bill, Perry said the law was necessary to protect government officials from liability but does not “fully address the need for greater privacy protection for Texas citizens to avoid identify theft and fraud.” Perry called on the Legislature to pass another law addressing his privacy concerns.
Joe Larsen, a media attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the quick efforts to clarify the law send a message to Abbott that he clearly misinterpreted Texas law with his February opinion.
“There shouldn’t have been a problem here to begin with,” Larsen said.
(H.B. 2061) — NW