Keeping it in the Vault

June 2012

The Journal Record

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You’ve seen the commercial with the catchy jingle reminding us to stay on top of our credit report. We’ve been inundated with information about identity theft and how to prevent it. Most have heeded the message and taken steps to prevent personal information from falling into the wrong hands. We attempt to create impenetrable passwords, restrict access to our wireless connections, shred mail, scrutinize emails before opening them, and most importantly, we never give out our personal identifiers (such as our Social Security numbers or birth dates) in response to email queries or random phone calls.

Yet, until recently there was nothing to prevent the dissemination of personal information from the workplace, that is, if you work for the state of Oklahoma. In the summer of 2010, state employees were faced with the reality that their birth dates and employee identification numbers were subject to public dissemination under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act, 51 O.S. § 24.1 et seq., because no specific exemption under the act existed to prohibit its release. The act was developed to provide transparency for state spending of tax dollars.

Without getting into a detailed analysis, the simple fact is: Personal identifiers say nothing about how a state employee is performing and yields no meaningful information on the transparency of state government. The request should have been denied. Instead, it sparked a conundrum of issues about privacy rights, including whether a state agency has the unfettered right to release birth date and employee identification information over the objections of its employees.

Litigation ensued, and after a hard-fought battle on the courthouse steps, the Oklahoma Supreme Court settled the issue, holding that the privacy rights of Oklahoma’s state employees outweighed the need for public disclosure. The court said any such dissemination constituted an unwarranted invasion of privacy under the act.

While this decision was certainly a victory for state employees, one has to ask how the request even made it off high center. Nothing within the act confers a free pass to all information regarding every state employee, regardless of the content. Unfortunately, it took an army of attorneys, a protracted court action, and an appeal to essentially tell us what most of us already knew – some information really should be kept in the vault.

Carole Dulisse is an associate in the Oklahoma City office of Fellers Snider.

This article appeared in the June 20, 2012 issue of The Journal Record. It is reproduced with permission from the publisher.
© The Journal Record Publishing Co.