Georgia, other states protect addresses of judges and workers after threats – HONEYCOMB

In the wake of threats and attacks on public officials, lawmakers in Georgia and across the United States have stepped up efforts to prevent the public disclosure of personally identifiable information about judges, police officers, elected officials and various government officials.

The measures generally have broad support in state capitals — they add a layer of secrecy in the name of security that could make it harder to determine whether officers are complying with residency laws and paying their property taxes.

Efforts to exempt more information from disclosure come despite the fact that many governments are more transparent than ever at their meetings and have made online streaming options permanent in response to coronavirus-related restrictions on public gatherings.

This led to a divided assessment of the government’s openness during Sunshine Week, an annual acknowledgment of public information laws that began Sunday and lasted through Saturday.

While meetings may be more accessible, “the government is basically getting more secretive every year,” said David Cuillier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona who has analyzed data on government compliance with records disclosure laws.

People requesting paperwork from the federal government are successful only about a fifth of the time, according to Cuillier’s research, while the success rate was over 50% more than a decade ago.
Requests for information under state laws are usually better, Cuillier said, but “every year exceptions are passed in state legislatures across the country, and it only seems to be accelerating.”

In individual cases, many exceptions for public records may appear reasonable and justified. A good example is the movement to keep the home addresses of judges secret.

In 2020, a man unhappy with US District Judge Esther Salas came to her New Jersey home disguised as a delivery man and fatally shot her 20-year-old son while injuring her husband. New Jersey officials responded later that year by passing legislation exempting the home addresses of current or retired judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials from disclosure under public records laws. The measure, dubbed “Daniel’s Law” in honor of the judge’s son, allows officials to also ask companies or individuals to remove their home addresses from the websites they control.

Although similar laws already existed in some states, the New Jersey case sparked action elsewhere. Most states now have laws prohibiting government agencies from disclosing the home addresses of at least some public employees, with judges among the most protected individuals, according to research by Jodie Gil, an associate professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.

A study panel at the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization that drafts potential laws for state legislatures, plans to recommend drafting a joint policy this spring to exclude judges’ home addresses and certain personal information from disclosure of public records, Vince said DeLiberato, Director of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau and Chair of the Study Board. The policy could also include an option to protect information for other officers who face threats, he said.

Meanwhile, states are pushing ahead with their own information exemption laws for certain officials.

The Missouri Senate recently voted 30-1 to pass legislation that would allow judges and prosecutors to require their home addresses, phone numbers, personal email addresses, marital status, the identities of their children, and other information be removed from public display. The protection would apply not only to government records and websites, but also to privately operated websites such as online telephone directories and internet search engines. This bill is now before the House of Representatives.

On the same day as the Missouri vote, the Georgia Senate voted 53 to 0 in favor of legislation allowing federal, state or local public employees to have their home addresses and phone numbers removed from those published online by local governments Apply for real estate documents. This bill is now before the House of Representatives.

“We don’t want people to be able to track down these people and do damage,” Georgia Republican Senator Matt Brass said while explaining his bill to a Senate committee.

But Richard Griffiths, a former president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, has expressed concerns about the unintended consequences, claiming that the New Jersey law “has become something of a trainwreck.” Some governments have shut down entire databases because they don’t know exactly whose information should be removed from which public records, he said.

New Jersey lawmakers responded in January 2022 by streamlining the process in Daniel’s Law and establishing a state information security agency — funded with $3 million — to create an online portal for law enforcement officials to use the request that their information be redacted.

Public records listing the home addresses of government officials can be an important tool for journalists working on public accountability stories, Gil said. Addresses on voter registration files and property records can be used to determine whether officers actually live in the county they represent or are in arrears on property taxes.

While working as a journalist a decade ago, Gil reported that a local tax collector certified that some officers had paid their road taxes when in fact they hadn’t.

“That would be something I could never have attempted if public records hadn’t made the connection between officials and their addresses,” Gil said. “I didn’t publish an address — I didn’t say the mayor lives in this house — but I needed his address to confirm he paid his taxes.”

Legislators are pursuing a variety of approaches this year to address confidentiality. An Oregon bill would prohibit public posting of the home addresses of elected officials and candidates on voter registration lists. A Connecticut bill would add bailiffs, employees of the attorney general and employees of a government entity that determines services for people with disabilities to a list of about a dozen types of public employees whose home addresses are confidential under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.

Connecticut’s bill is backed by Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat who told lawmakers his assistants are being targeted online.

“People get really angry when they’re the subject of an enforcement action,” Tong said, “and sometimes they retaliate and threaten violence against people in my office.”

But redacting public employee addresses from state records won’t necessarily prevent threats and “gives employees a false sense of comfort and security,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, a state agency that administers and enforces open-recording laws .

“For better or worse, the fact is that most people’s home addresses are now available for free or for a small fee on the Internet and through other commercial services,” Murphy said.

In New Mexico, a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of elected Democratic officials prompted the Senate to pass legislation that would allow officials to keep their home addresses private on election-related documents and government websites. The provision was included in a broader election bill now pending in the House of Representatives.

Among the supporters is Democratic Senator Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, whose home was shot multiple times while her 10-year-old daughter slept.

“I understand the issue of transparency,” Lopez said, “but in the day and time that we’re in, we really need to rethink what we’re doing.”

Associated Press writers Susan Haigh of Hartford, Connecticut and Morgan Lee of Santa Fe, New Mexico contributed to this report.