Lower court ruled in 2009 that law prohibiting dissemination of publicly available information infringes on free speechRichmond, VA – A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments today in an ACLU case challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia law prohibiting the dissemination of Social Security Numbers, even when those numbers are obtained from government websites open to the public.
The case centers on the actions of B.J. Ostergren, a privacy advocate who for years has lobbied the Virginia General Assembly to pass a law prohibiting government websites from publishing Social Security Numbers. Ostergren legally downloads the Social Security Numbers of public officials from government websites and then publishes them on her own website to demonstrate how effortlessly such information can be obtained.
Ostergren maintains that making Social Security Numbers so easily available facilitates identity theft.
In 2008, rather than tightening the law preventing Social Security Numbers from appearing on government websites, the General Assembly approved a bill preventing private citizens from distributing the Social Security Numbers once they have been downloaded. The new law quickly became known as the “anti-BJ law” and was perceived as an attempt to quiet a critic rather than address the real issue.
“The anti-BJ law was an irresponsible and unconstitutional act by Virginia’s legislators,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “It aided and abetted identity theft in Virginia by doing absolutely nothing to prevent the government from publishing Social Security Numbers online. At the same time, it directly infringed on the free speech rights of a privacy advocate who was only trying to convince the government to fix this very broken law.”
In June 2009, the federal district court in Richmond ruled that the law violates Ostergren’s First Amendment rights and ordered the state to allow her to continue to publish the Social Security Numbers of public officials. Lawyers for the state appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit of Appeals.
In court today, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg argued that Ostergren’s rights were protected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in The Florida Star v. B.J.F., which held that when the government makes information publicly available, it cannot limit what the public does with it.
Glenberg and ACLU cooperating attorney Frank Feibelman represent Ms. Ostergren.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022