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US Lawmakers Exert Efforts In Protecting Personal Information In The Workplace Of Public Employees After New Jersey Judge’s Son Was Shot

US Lawmakers Exert Efforts In Protecting Personal Information In The Workplace Of Public Employees After New Jersey Judge's Son Was Shot
Personal information is a wide range of facts or opinions that could be used to find out who someone is. (Photo: Shutterstock)

After a judge’s son was shot in New Jersey, a movement to keep judges’ addresses private gained steam and works in protecting personal information in the workplace.

After threats and attacks on public officials, state lawmakers all over the U.S. are doing more in keeping and protecting personal information in the workplace about judges, police, elected officials, and other public workers from getting out to the public.

Most state capitols back the measures, which add a layer of secrecy in the name of safety but could make it harder to determine if public officials are following residency laws and paying their property taxes.

Even though many governments are more open than ever when it comes to their meetings, there are still efforts in protecting personal information in the workplace from the public. This is happening even though the bans on public gatherings caused by the coronavirus have made many governments more open than ever.

Because of this, people have different opinions about how open the government is during Sunshine Week, which starts on Sunday and runs through Saturday.

Even though meetings may be easier to get to, “basically, the government is getting more secretive every year,” said David Cuillier, an associate journalism professor at the University of Arizona who has been looking at data about how well the government follows open-records rules.

Cuillier’s study shows that people who ask the federal government for records are only successful about one-fifth of the time. This is a drop from over a decade ago when the success rate was over 50%.

Cuillier said that information requests made under state rules usually improve. However, “every year, exemptions are passed in state legislatures all over the country, and this seems to be getting worse.”

On a case-by-case basis, many limitations to public records may seem fair and right. One good example in protecting personal information in the workplace is the effort to keep the home addresses of judges secret.

US Lawmakers Exert Efforts In Protecting Personal Information In The Workplace Of Public Employees After New Jersey Judge's Son Was Shot

What counts as personal information depends on whether or not a person can be named or is likely to be identified in a given situation. (Photo: iStock Photo)

In 2020, a man who didn’t like U.S. District Judge Esther Salas posed as a deliveryman and went to her home in New Jersey, where he killed her 20-year-old son and hurt her husband. Later that same year, New Jersey lawmakers passed a law that made it illegal for public records laws to reveal the home addresses of judges, attorneys, and law enforcement officers who were still working or had already retired. The law, called Daniel’s Law after the judge’s son, also let officials who were covered by it ask companies or people to take down their home addresses from websites they control.

Even though some states already had rules like New Jersey’s, the case gave other states a reason to act. According to research by Jodie Gil, an associate journalism professor at Southern Connecticut State University, most states now have laws that make it illegal for government agencies to give out the home addresses of at least some public employees. Judges are among the most widely protected public employees.

A study panel of the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization that drafts potential legislation for state lawmakers, plans to recommend this spring that a standard policy be drafted to exclude judges’ home addresses and certain data in protecting personal information in the workplace from public-record disclosures, said Vince DeLiberato, director of Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reference Bureau and chair of the study panel. He also said that the policy could have a way in hiding and protecting personal information in the workplace from other public officials who are in danger.

In the meantime, states are moving forward with their own rules that protect certain officials from having to give out data to work in protecting personal information in the workplace.

The Missouri Senate recently passed a bill by a vote of 30-1 that lets judges and prosecutors ask that their home addresses, phone numbers, personal email addresses, marital status, the names of their children, and other details not be shown to the public for protecting personal information in the workplace. The shield would cover government websites and records and privately run sites like online phone books and search engines. The House is now debating that bill.

On the same day as the Missouri vote, the Georgia Senate voted 53-0 for a bill letting federal, state, or local public workers ask for their home addresses and phone numbers to be taken off of online property records posted by local governments. The House is now debating that bill.

“We don’t want people to be able to find these people and hurt them,” Republican Georgia state Sen. Matt Brass told a Senate committee when he described his bill.

But Richard Griffiths, a former president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said that the New Jersey law “turned into a bit of a train wreck” because of the unintended effects. He noted that some countries shut down whole databases because they didn’t know whose information should be taken out of which public records.

In January 2022, New Jersey lawmakers changed the way Daniel’s Law works and set up a state Office of Information Privacy, which was given $3 million to build an online portal where judicial and law enforcement officials can ask for their information to be redacted that helps in protecting personal information in the workplace.

Gil said that the home addresses of government leaders could be found in public records, which can be a valuable tool for journalists writing about public accountability. Addresses in voter registration files and property ownership records can be used to determine if a representative lives in the area they are supposed to represent or are behind on their property taxes.

When Gil worked as a reporter a decade ago, she discovered that a local tax collector was certifying that some public officials had paid their car taxes when they hadn’t.

“I couldn’t have even tried it if there weren’t public records that linked public officials to their addresses,” Gil said. “I didn’t publish an address, and I didn’t say that the mayor lives at this house. But I needed his address to ensure he paid his taxes.”

This year, lawmakers are taking many different steps to deal with privacy which helps in protecting personal information in the workplace. A bill in Oregon would make it illegal for voter registration lists to show the homes of elected officials and candidates. A statement in Connecticut would add court guards, attorney general’s office employees, and workers in a state unit that decides services for people with disabilities to a list of about a dozen types of public employees whose home addresses are kept secret by the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.

The state attorney general of Connecticut, Democrat William Tong, supports the bill. He told lawmakers that his assistants are being harassed online.

Tong said, “People get outraged when enforcement action is taken against them, and sometimes they get back at us by threatening violence against people in my office.”

But redacting public employee addresses from state records won’t necessarily prevent threats and “provides employees with a false sense of comfort and security,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. This state agency administers and enforces open-records laws to work in protecting personal information in the workplace.

“For better or worse, most people’s home addresses are now easy to find on the internet and through other commercial services for free or a small fee,” Murphy said.

After a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of Democratically elected officials in New Mexico, the Senate passed a law letting public officials hide their home addresses on election-related papers and government websites, which helps in protecting personal information in the workplace. The provision is part of a more enormous bill about elections now being debated in the House.

Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque is one of the people who back the bill. Her home was shot several times while her 10-year-old daughter was sleeping.

Lopez said, “I get the issue of transparency, but in this day and age, we need to rethink what we’re doing.”

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