Judge rules that new law prohibiting dissemination of Social Security Numbers is unconstitutional as applied to website of privacy advocate B.J. Ostergren.

Richmond, VA - Federal Court Judge Robert E. Payne today ruled that Virginia’s new law prohibiting the publication of Social Security Numbers, including those taken from government websites available to the public, is unconstitutional as applied to the website of privacy rights advocate B.J. Ostergren.
In his opinion the judge holds that the new law, which was passed during the 2008 legislative session, cannot not be used to force Ostergren to remove Social Security Numbers currently on her website. However, the judge has asked for additional briefings from lawyers before deciding how the law might be applied to new information placed on the site.
The ACLU of Virginia represents Ostergren, who runs a website that advocates against making personal information available on the internet. Her website, TheVirginiaWatchdog.com, contains public records obtained from government websites that include the Social Security Numbers of public officials. By posting these documents, Ostergren hopes to prod government policy makers to take action to prevent Social Security Numbers from being posted online.
“No one wants to protect Social Security Numbers more than the ACLU and B.J. Ostergren, but the government can’t carelessly put Social Security Numbers online and then tell the public what they can and cannot do with those numbers,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “That’s censorship, and the court was quick to recognize that.”
“In the end, it appears this law was passed not for the purpose of protecting Social Security Numbers but to silence a critic of the state’s failure to protect such numbers from identity thieves,” added Willis.
In his opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Payne wrote: “It is difficult to imagine a more archetypal instance of the press informing the public of government operations through government records than Ostergren’s posting of public records to demonstrate the lack of care being taken by the government to protect the private information of individuals.”
Under Virginia law, circuit court clerks in Virginia 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 contain Social Security Numbers and other personal information. The purpose of Ostergren’s website is to pressure state officials to protect Social Security Numbers by showing how easy it is for her—and anyone else—to obtain them.
ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg argued the case for Ostergren. A copy of the judge’s opinion can be found online at http://www.acluva.org/docket/pleadings/ostergren_opinion.pdf.

Contact: Kent Willis, 804/644-8022

Stay informed

ACLU of Virginia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National