New Castle News

February 27, 2013

Our Opinion: Court decision advances the public’s right to know

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — We suppose we should point out the obvious at the beginning of this editorial.

We strongly support the concept of open records in Pennsylvania. As a newspaper, we understand the need to defend the public’s right to know what’s happening within government, and are painfully aware of assorted mechanisms employed to keep citizens in the dark.

So we are inclined to support court decisions that serve to beef up Pennsylvania’s Open Records Act. This week, one such state Supreme Court decision came down that’s worthy of note.

Basically, the ruling determined that the home addresses of individuals contained in government records are public. That may strike some people as an odd point of contention, and in most cases, it probably is.

But this particular ruling may have far-reaching consequences, and may lead to further challenges from people who think the state’s open records law infringes upon privacy. They may have a point in theory, but in practice there’s probably not much in terms of real privacy to protect here.

The case before the Supreme Court involved Mel Marin, a Mercer County political candidate who refused to put his address on campaign documents, citing privacy concerns and fearing for his personal safety.

We would suggest any candidate who worries about informing potential constituents were he lives probably should look for something else to do. But when the matter reached the Supreme Court, the only real question was whether the Open Records Act required the public release of candidate addresses.

The Supreme Court said it did, affirming a Commonwealth Court decision that noted the law allows only a handful of exceptions, candidates for public office not being among them.

The ruling, however, may not be the end of the story. The Pennsylvania Education Association and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association have indicated they view the ruling as limited in scope. The two organizations are fighting an open records effort to have the home addresses of teachers made public.

Their argument appears to be that there is no public purpose in identifying where teachers live. And indeed, it’s not the sort of information that’s likely to be routinely pertinent.

Yet we could envision instances of taxpayers arguing public employees should live in the districts where they work. Documenting residences would be a factor.

But it’s worth noting the court decision in this matter cited the fact the names and addresses of individuals tend to be relatively easy to find with the help of the Internet and other sources. Protecting the privacy of something that’s already in the public domain makes little sense.