HARRISBURG – For several years, the privacy of public school employees had been in jeopardy while the Pennsylvania State Education Association fought in court for the principle that individuals have a right to privacy pertaining to their home addresses per the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The association had received many Right to Know Law requests dating back to 2009 for the addresses of public school employees. The association sought preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to block the release of those home addresses, stating that they are exempt from public access. In July 2009, the Commonwealth Court granted that request.
But then in February 2015, the Commonwealth Court declared that neither the state constitution nor the Right to Know Law protected those home addresses when requested in accordance with that law.
PSEA appealed that decision, and this year the state Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision in October, declaring that the right to informational privacy is indeed guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1 of the state Constitution and could not be violated “unless outweighed by a public interest favoring disclosure.”
For example, in Commonwealth v. Duncan, the court stated that a criminal defendant’s name and addresses were not entitled to constitutional protection. But in the case with the PSEA, the court stated that the constitution calls for a “broader array of rights granted to citizens,” known as “inherent rights of mankind.”
Attorney Christopher L. Voltz explained that the Right To Know Law is designed to promote access to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials and make public officials accountable for their actions.
“As the court noted, while these goals of the Right to Know Law are laudable, privacy rights must still be recognized,” Voltz told the Pennsylvania Record.
“I think the court wanted to emphasize that a right to privacy exists under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and re-establish that its prior rulings under the old law were still binding and in full force and effect.
"In other words, a right to informational privacy exists under the constitution and such information is not a public record unless the public interest outweighs the privacy interest. I think the court also wanted to reign in the Right To Know Law, at least with respect to personal information.”
Court documents note that the Right To Know Law was not intended to be used as a tool to “procure personal information about private citizens or, in the worst sense, to be a generator of mailing lists. Public agencies are not clearinghouses of ‘bulk’ personal information otherwise protected by constitutional privacy rights.”
Voltz said that contracts and salaries of public agency employees are fair game, but their personal information, including their addresses, is not automatically public information.
“In other words, government employees do not shed their privacy rights by working for a public agency,” he said. “The protections may be even stronger for private citizens who submit information or have information about them submitted to public agencies, like tax information.”
Voltz said many in the legal profession were surprised that the court recognized a constitutional right to privacy in home addresses.
“It’s worth noting that at the beginning of the case, Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman of the Commonwealth Court recognized this right. On July 28, 2009, Judge Friedman granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the disclosure of the requested home addresses based on a constitutional right to informational policy,” Voltz said.
“However, the Commonwealth Court subsequently indicated that right to privacy in one’s home address was ‘fraught with challenge’ after the Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Duncan.”
In Office of Lieutenant Governor v. Mohn, and Office of Governor v. Raffle, the Commonwealth Court held that there was no right to privacy in home addresses. Even the state Supreme Court indicated that this issue was still a concern in 2012 and noted that at least two judges on the Commonwealth Court felt that the balancing test applied.
“But until the Supreme Court made its recent ruling, it seemed like the right to informational privacy issue was not a winning argument,” Voltz said.
“I think most people assumed that, if the addresses were going to be protected, it would be because the Right To Know Law is invalid for not providing adequate due process because it does not provide a mechanism for third parties (e.g., the school employees) to receive notice about requests for their information and to challenge the release of their information.”