Lawsuit says statute prohibiting dissemination of Social Security Numbers infringes on free speech without protecting privacy

Richmond, VA - The ACLU of Virginia today filed a lawsuit in federal court in Richmond on behalf of privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren, challenging a new Virginia statute that prohibits the dissemination of public records that contain Social Security Numbers, even when the records are obtained from government websites available to anyone.
The statute takes effect on July 1, the same date by which circuit court clerks across the state are required to make all land records available on the Internet. Land records are made up of deeds and mortgage information, but may also include legal judgments, such as divorce decrees, that may contain Social Security Numbers and other personal information. The ACLU is seeking an injunction prohibiting the state from enforcing the law against Ostergren.
“The ACLU is an advocate for laws that prevent the government from allowing Social Security Numbers to appear on publicly accessible websites,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “but when the government puts records online that do contain the numbers, it can’t then turn around and prevent the public from disseminating them.”
“This is a wrong-end-up law that attempts to conceal the fact that Virginia’s lawmakers have failed to prevent Social Security Numbers from being placed online in the first place,” added Willis. “If Social Security Numbers were removed from public records when they are placed online, there would be no need for this law.”
The ACLU lobbied against the passage of the new law and asked the Governor to veto it.
Ostergren runs the website TheVirginiaWatchdog.com, which advocates against making personal information available on the Internet. The website includes public records obtained by Ostergren from government websites that include the Social Security Numbers of public officials. By posting these documents, Ostergren hopes to illustrate the type of information available on government websites, and to prod officials to take action.
The lawsuit points out that shutting down Ostergren’s website will do nothing to protect Social Security Numbers, since all of the documents on the site are also available on government websites. In the 1989 case The Florida Star v. B.J.F., the Supreme Court observed that “where the government has made certain information publicly available, it is highly anomalous to sanction persons other than the source of its release.”
ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg is providing legal representation to Ostergren. A copy of the ACLU’s complaint can be found online at http://www.acluva.org/docket/pleadings/ostergren_complaint.pdf.

Contacts: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg, 804/644-8022

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