The Public Records Act (PRA) requires all public records maintained by state and local agencies be made available to all members of the public, except for records specifically exempt under the PRA or another statute.
It was originally passed as a ballot initiative by voters in 1972 and has been revised several times by the state Legislature. The PRA is foundational to an open, transparent and accountable government.
This week, the state House passed HB 1533, which, if signed into law, would exempt certain public agencies from the PRA where it may apply to one of their employees who has personally identified as being a survivor of domestic violence, harassment, stalking or assault. On the surface, the bill is meant to protect those fleeing violence. That is noble. However, it risks compromising public and media access to records, including confirmation of employment.
Imagine a scenario where a worker could engage in egregious actions or even heinous crimes, and state agencies would not be able to confirm or deny whether they are, or ever were, their employees. The potential for abuse with such a tool is staggering. Especially for policies meant to protect survivors, the intentions of bad actors need to be weighed.
There have been numerous reports of cases of coaches abusing athletes and teachers engaging in inappropriate contact with students. It’s a sobering reminder of the harm that can occur when those in positions of trust betray the people they are supposed to protect. However, the potential for abuse doesn’t stop there.
Imagine if a cunning and depraved individual were to take a process that was meant to safeguard victims from abusers and twist it to suit their own purposes. It’s a terrifying prospect that highlights the need for continued vigilance and strong ethical guidelines to prevent such abuses of power.
Only asking for a signature could make way for bad actors. As this bill moves to the Senate, we must urge lawmakers to consider the balance of individual safety with the public’s right to know.
On the House floor, the policy was improved slightly by requiring victims to provide a sworn statement under penalty of perjury that must be submitted in order to qualify for the exemption and renew their sworn attestation every two years. The bill passed with bipartisan support 80-15 and heads to the state Senate for approval and/or amendments.
We still wonder whether it strikes the correct balance.
Trust in government is essential for the proper operation of our state and federal government. COVID-19 and the fallout has eroded much of that trust. Look no further than the resistance by Democrats to House Bill 1535, which would reform the governor’s emergency powers. The press’ access to government information though the PRA has been an essential part of building trust back for Washingtonians.
We recognize that HB 1533 is narrowly tailored, but could be more so. HB 1533 does not allow an employee at a public agency to exempt their work product or communications.
The only information allowed to be exempt is personally-identifying information, such as their work location or address or information that could help a stalker to terrorize their victim. This policy also recognizes domestic violence protection orders issued by county superior courts likely do not have the authority to order a state agency to protect a victims personally identifying information.
Private sector employees are not subject to PRA requests and can protect their information. Proponents of the bill, then, argue domestic violence victims working in the public sector deserve the same safety or privacy protections and that a stalker or harasser could file a PRA request about their victim’s daily schedule and whereabouts to continue the victimization.
We support the underlying intention of the policy of protecting victims of stalking and survivors of domestic violence. Sadly, we also have some fear the PRA exemption in this case could be used to avoid proper disclosure.
We do believe the amendment that requires an attestation by the victim every two years makes the policy better. However, the requirement of a court order would provide a better balance to protect the public interest with personal protection, and other amendments have been proposed by the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. Changes must be made in the state Senate to strengthen the public interest portion while creating protections for survivors of domestic violence.