Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Public School Employees Have Constitutional Right to Privacy in Their Home Addresses

A public employee’s right to privacy was analyzed in some detail by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a decision entered October 18, 2016. Pa. State Educ. Ass’n v. Commonwealth. See 41 IER Cases 1310 (Pa. 2016). The Court considered the history of that state’s Right to Know Law (RTKL) as well as federal and state constitutional protections. The court’s deep dig into the privacy issues extends back to 1890 and a regularly cited law review article, Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890). There, Warren and Brandeis stated that all citizens have the “right to immunity of the person,” the “right to be let alone,” and the “right to one’s personality.” Sometimes referred to as the “right of informational privacy,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court applied such a right to the home addresses of public school employees. Although the Court struggled with the argument that the RTKL changed the analysis, a majority of the Court determined that the constitutional right to privacy must be considered in any balancing of claims for public records disclosure under the RTKL. As to employee’s home addresses, the Court found no basis to overcome the constitutionally protected privacy interest.

A concurring opinion was critical of the Court’s application of the rules of statutory construction. The concurring opinion would hold that the matter was controlled by the constitutional right to privacy and that the RTKL had no application. In discussing United States Supreme Court authority, the concurrence stated that “it may well be true that home addresses are publicly available through easily accessible sources. . . . However, '[a]n individual’s interest in controlling the dissemination of information regarding personal matters does not dissolve simply because that information may be available to the public in some form.’” Citing Dep’t of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749 (1989), and Dep’t of Defense v. Federal Labor Relations Auth., 510 U.S. 487 (1994).

In 1987, the Washington Legislature amended the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) to define an invasion of privacy:

A person's “right to privacy,” “right of privacy,” “privacy,” or “personal privacy,” as these terms are used in this chapter, is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information about the person: (1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public. The provisions of [the PRA] dealing with the right to privacy in certain public records do not create any right of privacy beyond those rights that are specified in this chapter as express exemptions from the public's right to inspect, examine, or copy public records.

RCW 42.56.050. Personal residential addresses of public employees (and their dependents) are considered private and not subject to disclosure under RCW 42.56.250(3). See Public Records Act for Washington Cities, Counties, and Special Purpose Districts (MRSC, 2016), available at http://mrsc.org/Home/Publications.aspx.