In light of recent threats and attacks on public officials, state lawmakers across the United States are increasing efforts to protect the personal information of judges, law enforcement, elected officeholders and other public employees.
For example, after the fatal 2020 shooting of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ son in New Jersey by a disgruntled man who came to the family’s home disguised as a deliveryman, officials enacted “Daniel’s Law,” which exempts the home addresses of current or retired judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers from public records laws. The measure also allows these officials to ask businesses or individuals to remove their home addresses from websites they control.
Since that tragic incident, most states have enacted laws prohibiting governmental entities from disclosing the home addresses of at least some public employees, with judges being among the most protected, according to research by Jodie Gil, an associate journalism professor at Southern Connecticut State University.
The Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit organization that drafts potential legislation for state lawmakers, plans to recommend a common policy this spring to exclude judges’ home addresses and certain personal information from public-record disclosures. According to Vince DeLiberato, director of Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reference Bureau and chair of the study panel, the measures may include an option to shield information for other public officials facing threats.
Meanwhile, states are pressing forward with their own information-exemption laws for certain officials. For instance, the Missouri Senate recently voted 30–1 in favor of legislation that allows judges and prosecutors to request the removal of personal information, including home addresses, from public display. The law would not just affect government websites, but also privately run search engines and online directories.
Similarly, the Georgia Senate voted for legislation that allows federal, state or local public employees to request the removal of their residential addresses and phone numbers from online property records posted by local governments.
“We don’t want people to be able to track these folks down and cause harm,” State Senator Matt Brass said about the bill, which received a 53–0 vote in the Senate and has moved to the House for approval.
An Oregon bill introduced this year would prohibit the home addresses of elected officials and candidates from being publicly disclosed on voter registration lists, while a Connecticut bill would add court marshals, attorney general’s employees, and workers who determine services for people with disabilities to a list of about a dozen types of public employees whose home addresses are confidential under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act.
“People get really angry when they’re the subject of an enforcement action, and sometimes they retaliate and they threaten people in my office with violence,” State Attorney General William Tong, who supports the bill, told the Associated Press.
While supporters argue that these efforts are necessary to protect public employees, some experts were concerned about the unintended consequences.
Richard Griffiths, a former president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the implementation of the New Jersey law was “a bit of a train wreck,” with some local governments shutting down entire databases due to uncertainty about whose information should be removed from which public records. In response, New Jersey lawmakers established a state Office of Information Privacy to create an online portal through which judicial and law enforcement officials can request that their information be redacted. The portal cost $3 million.
Other opponents argue that the added layer of secrecy could make it difficult for investigative journalists and other watchdogs to determine whether public officials are complying with residency laws and paying property taxes. Experts say that even though governments are more transparent than ever when it comes to meetings due to online streaming, the effort to exempt more information from public disclosure continues to increase each year. According to David Cuillier, an associate journalism professor at the University of Arizona, people requesting records from the federal government are only successful about one-fifth of the time — down from over a 50% success rate a decade ago. Although information requests under state laws typically have a higher success rate, exemptions passed in state legislatures across the country are accelerating every year.
Some critics say that such legislation will do little to address the root causes of violence against public employees and thus may not be that effective in stemming it. Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, a state agency that administers and enforces open-records laws, said that the measures will at most provide a “false sense of comfort and security.”
“For better or worse, the fact is that the residential addresses of most people are now readily available for free, or for a nominal charge, on the internet and through other commercial services,” she said.