By Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director
On Tuesday, Virginia lost one of its staunchest advocates for privacy and free speech. As one who was privileged to know and work with BJ Ostergren, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on her accomplishments.
In many ways, BJ was an ordinary citizen of Hanover County. But when she saw her government encroaching on civil liberties, she did not just complain; she took action. And she persisted, long past the point when most people would have given up, doggedly pouring thousands of hours and dollars into the fight until she achieved real change.
In 2003, BJ established a website called The Virginia Watchdog to alert the public to a serious threat to privacy. For the first time, Virginia circuit court clerks were making tens of thousands of land records available on the internet. While this was in some ways an advance for open government, it also put countless Virginians at risk by exposing their names, addresses, birth dates, and social security numbers, along with images of their signatures. It was an online bonanza for identity thieves. Upon investigation, BJ discovered that other states were also putting massive quantities of personal information on line.
BJ not only wrote about this danger on her website, she flew into action. She wrote and spoke to legislators and court clerks. She contacted the media. She even personally contacted thousands of individuals across the country to warn them that their personal identifying information was available online through government websites.
She soon learned that change was frustratingly slow. Legislators did not seem to understand the importance of the problem, and the public did not seem to care. She needed a new way to explain the clear and present danger posed by these online systems.
She found it. Using government websites, she downloaded public land records containing the social security numbers of legislators, clerks, and other officials with the power to address the issue. She posted these documents on her website. That got people’s attention. The media began to report on the problem, giving BJ the opportunity to explain her position in newspaper articles and television and radio interviews nationwide. Many state and local websites outside of Virginia began to redact social security numbers from public records available on line, or remove such records altogether.
In Virginia, legislators were furious that BJ was posting their land records online, even though she was only doing on a very small scale what the clerks of court were doing with thousands of records. The General Assembly quickly took action – not by mandating and funding the redaction of personal information from online public documents – but by passing a law to prohibit BJ from posting those same documents on her own website.
It was then that the ACLU of Virginia became involved, representing BJ in a legal challenge to the new law. We argued that it was absurd for the government to prohibit BJ from posting public documents that the government posted on its own websites. We pointed out that if the government really cared about protecting Virginians from identity theft, it would do something about the thousands of social security numbers available on government websites, rather than going after BJ for republishing a few dozen public documents on her site.
The courts agreed. First the lower court, then the court of appeals struck down the law as a violation of BJ’s free speech rights. At the same time, circuit court clerks in Virginia undertook the redaction of social security numbers form documents available on line. Thanks in large part to BJ, these websites are no longer the treasure trove of personal information they once were.
BJ’s work will have a lasting effect on privacy and free speech rights in Virginia. Her energy, creativity, and relentlessness are an example to all of us who want to bring about positive change in our communities.
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