Decision of Pennsylvania Supreme Court – Disclosure of Home Addresses under Right-to-Know Law

On October 18, 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Pennsylvania State Education Association, et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al., which will throughout this letter be referred to for the sake of brevity as the “Home Address Case”. The Home Address Case, filed in July 2009, involved a lawsuit in which the PSEA attempted to block the release of school district employees’ home addresses which had been requested under the Right to Know Law.  PSEA argued that school district employees’ home addresses should not be disclosed due to the employees’ right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the body of case law requiring individual privacy interests to be balanced against public interest was valid under the Right to Know Law. Having determined that, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court further concluded that public school employees have a right to “informational privacy” which may not be violated unless the right is outweighed by some public interest favoring disclosure. In performing the balancing test, the Court found that public school employees had a “strong privacy interest in protecting their home addresses from disclosure in response to broad and generic requests based upon no criteria other than their occupation.”  The Court further held that “public school employees should not be required to forfeit their privacy merely as a condition to, or by virtue of, their decision to be employed as public school employees.”  The Court found that, in this case, the Office of Open Records “identified no public benefit or interest in disclosure of tens of thousands of addresses of public school employees”. Nothing in the Right to Know Law suggested that it was ever “intended to be used as a tool to procure personal information about private citizens or, in the worst sense, to be a generator of mailing lists.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in the Home Address Case does not create a blanket rule that the home addresses of public school employees are exempt from disclosure in all circumstances.  Additionally, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling does not impact the release of other publicly available information, such as an employee’s salary.  In order to determine whether or not an employee’s home address may be disclosed, the individual’s privacy interest would have to be weighed against the public interest of disclosure of the address. Such a balancing test is subject to legal interpretation.  Contact Pete Halesey at pjh@mbm-law.net or anyone on our School Law Team at edcuation@mbm-law.net or 412-242.4400.

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