Balancing public’s right to know against individual privacy


Should otherwise public court records detailing child abuse, financial records or medical information be posted on the Internet? Courts throughout America are grappling with that issue as they develop rules governing electronic publication of documents in civil and criminal cases. At the annual meeting of the National Freedom of Information Coalition on Saturday, a panel discussion focused on the sensitive issues that arise when making information available on the Internet. The group’s mission statement says it is dedicated to protecting the public’s right to know. “Do we put autopsy photos online?” asked David Byers, administrative director of the Arizona court system and president of the Conference of State Court Administrators. “Do we put photos of rape victims that have been entered into evidence? It’s that kind of detail that causes people to pause.” A panel of state court administrators will propose national guidelines later this summer that try to balance the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy. Now, each state decides whether to post court documents online and whether to withhold some information that is otherwise available to the public at courthouses. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy-Powell said online posting of information as seemingly non-controversial as traffic citations could allow the spouse of a domestic violence victim to discover the person’s new address. “Where do the privacy rights come in, if they come in at all?” she asked. “It’s not a simple question.” James Chadwick, a Silicon Valley attorney who specializes in representing the media in First Amendment issues, argued that there is a public interest in providing access to documents in court cases between private parties. For instance, testimony in private personal injury suits brought against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. revealed information about the company that otherwise may have remained confidential, he said. “Cases involving private litigation can provide the public with information on matters of broad and significant public concern,” he said.