A federal court of appeals has upheld a privacy advocate's right to post online public records that contain personal information, including Social Security numbers.
Betty "BJ" Ostergren, founder of the Web site TheVirginiaWatchdog.com, posted the records to illustrate how easy it is for the public to access sensitive information. Many of the documents are public land records that contain unredacted Social Security numbers of elected officials.
"Ms. Ostergren's most powerful advocacy weapon has been to demonstrate to the public how bad a job the government is doing to protect our online privacy rights," said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, which is representing Ostergren. "The government responded, but by trying to silence Ms. Ostergren. That's hardly the answer any of us want to see, and besides, it violates the constitutional right of free speech."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a 2009 decision by U.S. District Court Robert E. Payne, who ruled that a 2008 law passed by the Virginia General Assembly prohibiting the dissemination of another person's Social Security number violated Ostergren's First Amendment rights.
"When a state seeks to punish a speaker for republishing state-published information, the state should be expected, in the words of a contemporary colloquialism, not simply to talk the talk, but to walk the walk, as well," Judge Allyson Duncan wrote in the opinion.
One person has pleaded guilty to using the Web site to obtain false credit cards.
The Fourth Circuit also found that Payne's injunction against enforcing the law against Ostergren did not go far enough because it did not protect Ostergren's right to publish Virginia land records that contain private individuals' Social Security numbers or the numbers of out-of-state public officials.
The case was sent back to the lower court.