With the advent of the new Right-to-Know Law on January 1, 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its decision in Tribune Review Publishing Company v. Bodack in which it ruled that unredacted cell phone records, including phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls, fall under the reputation, personal security and privacy exceptions under the former Right-to-Know Act. The ruling is somewhat muted by one of the thirty exceptions under the new Law which defines personal identification information to include “all or part of a person’s social security number, driver’s license number, personal financial information, home, cellular or personal telephone numbers [or] personal e-mail addresses.” However, since another exception prevents disclosure of a record which risks the personal security of an individual, the Supreme Court’s rationale regarding the privacy interest has ongoing relevance. The Supreme Court held that phone records are public documents subject to disclosure, regardless whether the public officials had repaid the bills because public funds had been expended to cover the costs. The Supreme Court then decided that the telephone numbers must be redacted from the bills prior to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Act. Although the new Right-to-Know law shifts the burden to the government to prove a document falls under an exception to disclosure, recognizing the privacy exception, the Supreme Court determined that there is information whose disclosure “by their very nature” would prejudice a person’s privacy, reputation or personal security. With phone numbers, the government is not required “to prove item by item that each person or entity who may be affected will potentially suffer a threat to privacy, reputation or personal security.” However, caution should be exercised in relying upon this decision when processing requests under the new Right-to-Know law.
Alfred C. Maiello is the founding member of MBM and has represented area school districts as solicitor for 50 years. He counsels school districts and educational institutions on leading developments in school law and guiding them through their day-to-day and long-term challenges.