NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · OHIO · Freedom of Information · Sep. 10, 2005
State employees’ home addresses not public, high court says
Sep. 10, 2005 · Home addresses of Ohio state employees are not subject to disclosure under the state’s open records law, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, overturning two lower court decisions.
The court determined that the addresses, sought by The Columbus Dispatch in 2003 after the state ended a 10-year practice of disclosing the information yearly, are intended for internal use and do not meet the definition of an open record under the state’s Public Records Act.
The Department of Administrative Services released the addresses each year from 1992 to 2002 as part of a larger record of state employees’ position and salary information, fulfilling requests by The Dispatch, which used them for specific stories and general reference on an intra-office database. When the state refused to release the payroll information containing addresses in 2003, the newspaper sued.
“It was fully understood by the state of Ohio that the information annually released to The Columbus Dispatch included addresses,” said Marion H. Little Jr., an attorney for the newspaper. “The state of Ohio believed they were public records, too. During the course of litigation, the state actually gave us most of the addresses.”
One definition of a record under Ohio law is information that serves a function in a department’s operations. However, despite sworn testimony by the Department of Administrative Services that the addresses are used as part of its operations, the court held that the addresses are not “records” and therefore not public. “At best, home addresses represent contact information used as a matter of administrative convenience,” wrote Justice Alice Robie Resnick for the unanimous court.
Little called the decision “implausible,” given the department’s sworn testimony.
In the future, the newspaper will presumably not see the addresses on reports from the state. Alan W. Johnson, the Dispatch‘s public affairs reporter who had previously requested and received the information for several years before this suit, noted that the curtailing of information began after national security came to the forefront following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I can probably find other ways to get the information if I have to, but it makes my job more difficult in the short run,” he said, citing a recent instance where a state employee facing off-the-job allegations couldn’t be reached for comment because the newspaper did not have his home contact information. “The larger concern is the rollback of information from the state.”
Despite its ruling, the court stressed the limitation of its decision, stating that Ohio courts must continue to construe the Public Records Act liberally, favoring access and disclosure for public records.
(State ex rel. Dispatch Printing Co. v. Johnson, Media counsel: John W. Zeiger and Marion H. Little, Columbus, Ohio) — CZ