Judges rule on Pa. open-records law
Government-issued employee telephone and cellphone numbers are not public information under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, but officials’ home addresses and middle names are, a seven-judge panel ruled Wednesday.
The Commonwealth Court panel, weighing appeals of decisions by the state Office of Open Records in two cases, also concluded that “secondary” email addresses issued to government officials do not have to be disclosed.
The open-records office had ordered the governor’s office to disclose the government-issued phone numbers of 39 employees on grounds that the exception for personal identification information is limited to numbers used for official business. But the judges said mixing official and personal business does not mean the numbers have to be disclosed.
“The fact that government business may be discussed over an employee’s government-issued, personal cellular telephone does not make that telephone any less ‘personal’ within the meaning” of the Right-to-Know Law, said President Judge Dan Pellegrini, who wrote the majority opinions in both cases.
The ruling that secondary email addresses are not public information prompted a dissenting opinion from Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, who said she agreed with the open-records office that email addresses created by the government to transact government business should be subject to the Right-to-Know Law.
“There is an important difference between a government email address and a personal cellphone number, even one paid for by the government,” she said. “The government email stays with the government, and it cannot be used by the employee after he leaves government service. That is not the case with a personal cellphone number that may have been established before the employee entered government and can follow that employee into retirement.”
On the other issues, Pellegrini said home addresses are not protected by any exception in the law or by constitutional principles of privacy and that “the same rationale applies to middle names.”
Judge Patricia McCullough dissented on that issue, saying she would remand the issue to the open-records office to allow individuals to assert privacy rights before their home addresses or middle names could be disclosed.
Craig Staudenmaier, the attorney for two citizen activists who filed the original requests, said he was unsure whether his clients would appeal. He said he is concerned that the decisions will make it more difficult for citizens to get public information, but that on balance, Wednesday’s rulings are good news.
Terry Mutchler, the executive director of the open-records office, said she is pleased by the ruling on home addresses, but said court’s findings on phone numbers and email addresses is likely to stifle the flow of public information.
“A government-issued anything should be available to the people who pay for it,” she said.