A federal appeals court ordered Virginia's attorney general to cease threats of suing a privacy advocate who publishes Social Security numbers of elected officials on the Web site, The Virginia Watchdog.
Betty Ostergren, owner of the site, now avoids being sued by the state's top law enforcement official for breaching a state law that prohibits the publication of such information. The court did not, however, strike down the law, which was adopted in 2008 and carries a $3,500 per violation.
A three-judge panel said the regulation breached Ostergren's First Amendment rights as they applied to her protected political speech. The court found the purpose of her speech outweighed the privacy interests of around three dozen public officials whose data were published on her site. She published land records that contained the Social Security numbers to protest the data being included in local government documents publicly available online.
"Seeing a document containing a Social Security number posted on my Web site makes a viewer understand instantly, at a gut level, why it is so important to prevent the government from making this information available," Ostergren said.
The determining factor in the judgment by the panel was not that the numbers were posted, but how they were posted. They were not posted in a list form, but were part of documents maintained by government officials.
Ostergren's lobbying of the Virginia government resulted in the state moving to redact 2 million records.
In May, a federal judge in Florida struck down a law prohibiting the publication of a police officer's name, phone number or address, calling the statute an unconstitutional restraint on speech.
The ruling stemmed from a case involving the arrest of a Florida man who was jailed in 2008 for posting the personal information of a police officer at ratemycop.com. The man posted the information, which the site did not normally require, after he claimed that the officer was rude to him when investigating a call at the apartment complex he managed.
The case was later dismissed for procedural reasons, but the man sued, and a judge awarded him $25,000 in damages.