Court: State agency must hand over Fla. teachers’ Social Security numbers

FLORIDA— In a ruling that the Florida Department of Education said“turns the purpose of state government on its ear,” a state courtdeclared that the department must comply with an open-records request by acommercial newspaper for the Social Security numbers of every teacher in thestate. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune requested the Social Securitynumbers to combine two databases to show the schools where high-quality teacherswork. One database lists teachers’ performance on certification tests, andthe other lists the schools in which they teach. The department gave thenewspaper some of the requested information, but refused to give out all of theSocial Security numbers.“Before we sued, we got a large chunk ofthe records, but there was some data left out that we later went back andrequested again saying, ‘You guys didn’t give us all of thedata,’” said Chris Davis, Herald-Tribune editor of specialprojects.According to a Florida Department of Education spokesman, thedepartment reluctantly gave out some teachers’ Social Security numbersearlier in the year. Since then, however, the department has worked with theFlorida legislature to make a law that only allows the last four digits of ateacher’s Social Security number to be released. The law goes into effectJuly 1, and thus had no bearing on the ruling.Florida EducationCommissioner Jim Horne said in a press release that the department plans toappeal the June 15 ruling to “protect teacher privacy.”Inaccordance with Florida law, the Herald-Tribune can only use the SocialSecurity numbers for a legitimate business purpose. Publishing the numbers is afelony, punishable with up to five years in jail.“For some reason,they think we are out to get them, when that is not at all what we aredoing,” Davis said. “We’re keeping [Social Security numbers]secret and they are not going out beyond the two reporters who are working onthe project.”The department contends that if it is required toprovide the newspaper with the requested information, then “time is takenaway from increasing student achievement among all of Florida’s students at taxpayers’ expense,” Horne said.But Davis said Horne istrying to politicize the issue.“The fact of the matter is thatthis is a very simple request that anyone who knows anything about computerscould do in a minimal amount of time,” Davis said. “None ofit is time-consuming, and quite frankly, if it is, that’s Department ofEducation’s problem because they have a duty to provide in a meaningfulway access to public records that they collect with the public’sdime,” he added. “This isn’t their information — this isthe public’s information.”The Herald-Tribune askedthe department to combine the databases to avoid the need for the release ofSocial Security numbers, but that request was also denied. The judgegave the department five days to file the records request, but as of June 23,the Herald-Tribune had not yet received any information.

NYT Management Services, Inc. v. Florida Department of Education, No. 04-CA-1247 (Cir. Ct. Leon County, June 15, 2004)