N.C. measure would shield data on children in public park programs

NORTH CAROLINA — The North Carolina legislature passed a billWednesday allowing public parks and recreation programs, like Little Leagues, tokeep private the names and information of children who participate in theprograms.

Under existing law, a child’s name, date of birth, address andtelephone number were considered open to the public and available on request toanyone, no questions asked, as is any public record.

Under the new proposal, which has not yet been signed by Gov. Mike Easley,only the county, municipality and zip code of a child would remain open to thepublic. Each park program may choose to release additional information aboutits participants but is no longer forced to do so by state open-recordlaws.

“This is something we have fought right from the beginning,”said Beth Grace, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association. “All we want to do is cover our Little League, and this bill wiped out allof the information we need.”

Grace said she had been working on a compromise with legislators that wouldkeep information such as a child’s name and what county they live in apublic record, but it was rejected by the legislature. She said disclosing theinformation would allow reporters to have access to needed information forphotos and news articles, while still keeping sensitive informationprivate.

Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, was the driving force behind this bill. Bordsen said local park and recreational leagues would develop forms for parentsto control what information about their child is available to the public.

“This was a complete inconsistency,” Bordsen said. “Thistype of information wasn’t considered public in public schools orcommunity colleges. This was a glaring exception.”

The personal information of students in North Carolina public schools areprotected and not considered public records. Some schools may allow parentswhose children perform in school-sponsored events, like school sports teams, tosign forms that dictate what information will appear in rosters and other publicrecords.

Although Bordsen believes public park and recreation programs will enactsimilar policies, there is no mandate in the bill that would force them to doso.

In a June 9 statement, the North Carolina Press Association said althoughthe legislation does not prohibit parks from releasing a child’s personalinformation, “our membership experience shows that if a bill suggests infois not public record, no government agency will release it. The bill effectivelybans disclosure.”

The legislation originated from an Alamance News inquiry into theresidency information of parents who had children in a local recreational leaguelast year. The publisher and editor of the News, Tom Boney Jr., said thelegislation was a way to solve a problem that did not exist.

“This is another example of legislators being in session toolong,” Boney said. “There aren’t any examples, anywhere oranytime of children being in danger because of this information.”

But Bordsen said disclosing highly personal information as a public recordcould allow child predators easy access to children.

“Imagine if someone walked into an office and pointed to a kidoutside in blue and asked for his information,” Bordsen said, noting thatunder the previous law any person could request this information. “Whywould anyone want that kid’s name, address and phone number?”

Grace does not believe the bill will make any children safer.

“This was done in bad faith, and it’s bad policy,” shesaid. “Our research shows that child molesters haven’t asked forthese records.”

If the bill is signed by the governor, Grace said, covering Little Leagueand other youth events will be much more difficult.

“Instead of using a child’s name under a photo, would have toprint something like ‘unidentified player one’ or’unidentified player two’,” Grace said.

Both sides agree most parents whose children participate in these programswant to see their son’s or daughter’s picture in the newspaper. Theproblem, Bordsen said, was mandating that personal information be public couldlead to a whole host of problems.

“Children are different. Adults can handle themselves, but childrenneed more protection,” Bordsen said.

Boney does not believe the bill will affect the News dramatically.But he said it might have an impact on newspapers that cover Little League gamesmore extensively.

“It will mean that reporters will have to jump though a whole lotmore hoops to find out who, say, number 21 is,” Boney said.

Bordsen said the solution to a reporter’s possible problem is easy.

“If you want to take a picture of a kid, just ask them for theirname. That’s all,” Bordsen said.