The state’s high court Monday instructed state agencies to broaden their understanding of the “public interest” when deciding requests under the state’s public record law, a ruling that increases the grounds the public can invoke when fighting to get information released to them.
The unanimous ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court grew out of a lawsuit filed by the Boston Globe against the Department of Public Health for electronic copies of 4.6 million birth certificates issued between 1953 and 2011 and 2.2 million marriage licenses issued between 1983 and 2013.
The SJC unanimously ruled that the complex issue raised in the Globe litigation that balances the right of the public access to government records with the privacy rights of Massachusetts citizens must be re-examined by lower court judges based on Monday’s ruling.
The birth certificates and marriage licenses are available to the public at terminals at state offices or by using a private on-line company that collected $1.6 million in fees for the state. But searching at state offices usually only involves an individual birth certificate or marriage license, not millions of records at once, according to the court.
The Globe, in 2014, asked for a copy of the electronic versions of the 7 million records but was denied by the DPH and later by a Suffolk Superior Court judge. Both the agency and the judge raised a privacy concern, and also that data like birth records could inadvertently lead to medical information becoming public.
In its 46-page ruling written by Justice David Lowy, the SJC said they have decided that databases with identifying information about millions of citizens may trigger privacy rights while a request for an individual record does not.
“We have yet to address in the public records context whether there is a greater privacy interest in a compilation of personal information than in the discrete information that a compilation summarizes,’’ Lowy wrote for the court. “We now recognize, as have the United States Supreme Court and the Appeals Court, that in certain circumstances there is...The privacy interest in a public records request may increase if the requested record is a compilation.
The court ordered the judge who eventually hears the Globe case to decide whether releasing 7 million records assists the Globe in scrutinizing the effectiveness of the DPH, but also whether releasing the records could benefit the public in other ways.
“Information is the bread and butter of democracy, and the government is in a unique position to collect and aggregate information from which the public may benefit,’’ Lowy wrote. “As the request in this case demonstrates, reporters, scholars, and others seek to use this information to learn and teach.”
Addressing concerns about privacy, the SJC also instructed the judge to consider whether the records would inadvertently lead to disclosure of information that the Legislature has exempted from public disclosure such as birth certificates of a child born out of wed lock.
“A side-by-side comparison of the same person’s data at different points in time might reveal, for example, the biological parents’ names of an individual who has since been adopted, the name of a putative father whose nonpaternity has since been established, and the previous name and sex of an individual who has since completed sex reassignment surgery,” Lowy wrote.
John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.