Fla. newspaper not entitled to access teachers’ Social Security numbers, appeals court rules

FLORIDA — A Sarasota newspaper seeking access to teachers’ Social Security numbers lost its battle with the Florida Department of Education Feb. 15 when a state appeals court overturned the trial court ruling, which would have granted the newspaper the access it requested.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune sought access to two databases last spring from the Florida Department of Education to determine where the best and worst teachers in the state work. One database contained basic demographic information concerning teachers, and the other was a certification database.

To compare information from the two databases, the Herald-Tribune needed access to Social Security numbers in the databases, which would be used expressly for matching information. In June 2004, the trial court ruled that the newspaper could have access to both databases and the Social Security numbers for this function.

A federal restriction on the certification database, which stipulates that Social Security numbers may only be used for child support enforcement purposes, was the primary reason for the appellate court’s ruling, said Rachel Fugate, attorney for the Herald-Tribune. Without access to the Social Security numbers in the certification database, the Herald-Tribune has no way to match information from the demographic database.

“We believed all along that we were entitled to access,” Fugate said. “We would have only used them [Social Security numbers] for the internal matching.”

The Florida Department of Education appealed the original decision because it was “confident in its efforts to protect personal information,” according to department spokesman MacKay Jimeson.

“First and foremost, it’s an issue of protecting personal information in an age of identity theft and fraud,” Jimeson said. “The [education] department, in this particular case, was protecting personal information–information that could be used or be potentially harmful if it was in the hands of unlawful individuals.”

Fugate said the Herald-Tribune has not yet decided if it will appeal.

–By Elisabeth Salemme

Read previous coverage:

  • Court: State agency must hand over Fla. teachers’ Social Security numbersNews Flash, 6/28/2004