Washington bill to restrict access to employee birthdates does more harm than good

This statement was sent to the Washington State Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections

Committee members,
My name is Donald W. Meyers, and I am the regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s oldest and broadest journalism group. The region I represent covers the Pacific Northwest, including Washington state. I am also a working journalist with more than 30 years of experience in weekly and daily newspapers.
I am also an identity theft victim. I know firsthand the upheaval having one’s identity stolen and misused can create in a person’s life. In my case, I was nearly arrested, hounded by bill collectors and had restricted access to my own money as the result of someone impersonating me.
Speaking both on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists and personally, I am opposed to Second Substitute House Bill 1888. While it appears to be based in good intentions on the surface, it only serves to add another restriction on information the public needs to hold government accountable and does absolutely nothing to protect people from identity theft.
This bill was primarily drafted because the SEIU did not want its members receiving what it perceives as anti-union messages from the Freedom Foundation. The arguments about identity theft and protecting people from stalking and domestic abuse appear to be an attempt at scaring the Legislature to take action that overrides a decision of the state’s highest court.
Rather than abridging the Public Records Act to silence an opponent, the SEIU should instead respond with its own messages to refute the Freedom Foundation’s arguments. As Justice Louis Brandeis said in Whitney v. California, the remedy to bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence.
Having access to birthdates and photos serves a vital public good. It is a way of verifying someone’s identity. That is crucial when reporting on court proceedings or investigating corruption in government. For instance, without birthdates, it would be difficult to compare a list of school bus drivers against people who have DUI convictions. It provides a way to differentiate between people with identical names.
While the current bill offers an exemption for the news media, that is troubling in the current climate of hostility toward journalists coming from all levels of government. It creates a way to deny journalists access to information by someone who, for whatever reason, decides that an outlet does not fit their definition of a journalist.
As for the issues of identity theft, a birthdate is not as vital a piece of information as some would think. The true key piece of information is the Social Security number, which is already has legal safeguards in place. Likewise, it is unlikely that an identity thief is going to use the Public Records Act, which would create a paper trail that could be easily traced. Instead, they use phishing schemes and dumpster diving to get the information they need. In my case, my Social Security number was lifted from a class roster at a private university that was passed around so students could check in for the day’s class.
There are also mechanisms in place that safeguard information on people who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking that do not require creating yet another exemption to the Public Records Act.
And in the unlikely event someone does use a public record for stalking or identity theft, there are already laws in place to prosecute such behavior. There is no need to enact a law that infringes on people’s exercise of a lawful right.
I would recommend that this bill not be passed, as it only restricts people’s access to necessary public record. It harms the public’s good while providing no genuine benefit in return.
I thank you for your consideration.

Donald W. Meyers,
Region 10 Coordinator
Society of Professional Journalists


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