The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Privacy Groups Debate Court Record Access

by Brendan Coyne

Mar. 3, 2006 – An ongoing debate in Florida over Internet access to court records has erstwhile allies lined up in opposition over information access and privacy rights.

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At issue is personal information often included in legal filings, such as Social Security numbers, financial records, medical details and other information that could be used to identify or track people.

On Wednesday, several public interest groups spoke at a hearing over new rules about public posting of court records.

Few Florida court records have been available online since Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead signed a 2003 order preventing the Internet posting of nearly all court-related information until a court-appointed committee could recommend rules for addressing privacy issues. The committee’s findings and public comment will influence new rules to become administrative law in 2007.

Under the committee’s recommendations, issued last August, most medical information included in court records would be redacted from electronic versions. In addition, the committee said non-transactional financial records should not be provided online, where they may fall prey to identity thieves.

The moratorium and the committee’s recommendations were questioned by reporters, public interest organizations and businesses at Wednesday’s hearing.

"This is simply a stalling process," Manatee County Circuit Court Clerk R.B. "Chips" Shore told the justices, according to the Associated Press. "The moratorium, in my opinion, fears the future. It's like stopping the issuance of a driver's license because we're afraid somebody's going to get in an accident."

Court clerks would be heavily affected if court follows the Committee’s recommendations. Individual clerks would be tasked with deciding which records would remain private.

Journalists are also calling for an end to the moratorium, along with several businesses and members of the Florida Bar Association.

In comments filed Monday, the Florida-based First Amendment Foundation asked that the moratorium be lifted and said that "current safeguards are sufficient and provide the appropriate constitutional balance between the public’s interest in open court records and the individual’s interest in protecting sensitive personal information."

The group acknowledged its support for so-called "minimization," which includes the redaction of Social Security numbers and other potentially exploitable information but said further limitations may be unconstitutional.

In an odd twist, a privacy rights group more accustomed to demanding that government officials turn over records found itself in the unfamiliar position of advocating for less public access to government records.

The Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse (EPIC) warned that court records are ripe for government and private business data-mining, as well as for identity theft.

In comments filed Tuesday, the group acknowledged the odd role it found itself in, stating: "EPIC occupies a unique space in this debate because the organization both advocates for the right of privacy and pursues access to government records under the Freedom of Information Act."

Despite its role as a court-recognized media entity and its history of suing government and businesses over records secrecy, the organization said the steady erosion of individual privacy rights demands nothing less than close court supervision of personal information.

"Instead of being citizens' window into government activities, public records are giving the government, law enforcement and data brokers a window into our daily lives," EPIC wrote. "Without privacy protections, court and other public records will be commodified for commercial purposes unrelated to government oversight."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Report originally appeared in the March 3, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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