By: Martha Bryson Hodel, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A few weeks ago, online access to federal criminal filings suddenly stopped. Though court records remain publicly available on paper at courthouses, they were deemed too public when it came to the Internet.
The U.S. Judicial Conference’s decision drew criticism from First Amendment advocates. Yet it is only the latest manifestation of a privacy-vs.-access debate becoming more common as government agencies — the keepers of public information — confront Internet age challenges.
The conference, a 27-judge panel that sets policy for federal courts, cited privacy and safety concerns in cutting off Internet access to the criminal records.
The Sept. 19 decision was applauded in some quarters.
“A lot of court records have unevaluated, raw stuff,” said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal newsletter in Providence, R.I. “I think it is very dangerous to put that kind of information on the Web.”
Smith maintains that Internet records are palpably different from written records because they “are available anonymously … to people who have to show very little need to know beyond idle curiosity.”
But Charles Davis, who heads the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the new policy reflects an unfounded fear that “electronic information is more dangerous than paper information.”
Before the Internet, public records often gathered dust — and people who really wanted to review them had to travel to a reading room and show their faces to a clerk. That system tended to favor the rich and well-connected over the poor.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some government agencies have pulled potentially sensitive information from the Web.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for one, no longer offers detailed reports on chemical plants on its Web site for fear terrorists could use them to plot attacks. Anyone wanting a report must visit a government reading room and offer identification.
The appearance online of other public records has already stirred considerable controversy.
In New York City, a nonprofit group posted voter registration records on a Web site, allowing anyone offering a last name and a birth date to retrieve voters’ home addresses and political affiliations.
Even though the information has long been available on paper, the group decided to block access to the records after complaints from city residents.
And in another case involving the courts, the Judicial Conference initially denied crime news site APBnews.com the ability to post financial disclosure reports on about 1,600 federal judges.
The conference said posting such records created security risks even though the courts routinely gave copies to anyone who requested them — after first notifying the judge involved. The conference later agreed to permit posting.
In deciding to bar federal criminal filings from online posting, U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II, a member of the Judicial Conference, cited reports that prison inmates had used them to identify other prisoners who had cooperated with prosecutors.
“It has resulted in some instances in beatings or worse within the prison system,” he said, declining to provide specifics. Computers are frequently available in prison libraries.
Haden said his Charleston-based judicial district had already concluded that some material, such as pre-sentencing reports, contains many private details that ought not be available electronically.
But he said other districts had not considered the issue.
“That’s why the conference’s criminal law committee wants to study this further, to come up with appropriate protocols,” Haden said.
Haden believes the Judicial Conference ultimately will decide to make criminal court records available on the Internet, with a few deletions for privacy concerns. A review is expected within two years.
In the meantime, the conference voted to permit electronic access to civil and bankruptcy court records, with some deletions, such as Social Security cases.
Online court records have been available for as many as 13 federal district courts in 10 states through a service called PACER. The criminal filings were quickly dropped after the decision.
Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman of The Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., said the importance of absolute public access to criminal court records should trump any other concerns.
“Freedom of speech is meaningless unless we have the maximum amount of information from our government,” he said. “That’s what makes ordinary citizens partners with their elected leaders. That’s access.”
McMasters said if privacy concerns can be addressed with civil records, “you can do the same thing with criminal court records.”