The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that individuals have a qualified right to privacy in the non-disclosure of their home addresses. Pennsylvania State Educ. Ass’n v. Commonwealth, Dep’t of Cmty. & Econ. Dev., 148 A.3d 142, 144 (Pa. 2016). The decision raises more questions than it answers. When government agencies ask whether home addresses must be publicly disclosed, the answer remains that it depends.
The right to privacy in home addresses is not absolute. When an agency receives a right-to-know request for records that contain home addresses, the agency must balance whether the public’s interest in dissemination outweighs the individual’s right to privacy.
The Supreme Court found that public school employees have strong privacy interests in protecting their home addresses from disclosure in response to requests for lists of names and addresses. The Supreme Court did not, however, provide guidance for other types of records that contain home addresses.
Government agencies have publicly disclosed home addresses for years. For a minimal fee, a citizen can obtain a voter list from the Department of State that contains the name and home address of every registered voter in Pennsylvania. Likewise, courts have long held that tax assessment lists must be available for immediate public inspection. Local governments frequently disclose home addresses in response to requests for zoning permits, tax records, and utility billing records.
Government agencies have issued mixed responses in the aftermath of the PSEA case. The Department of State continues to release voter home addresses. Most counties continue to publish assessment data on-line. However, some School Districts have refused to disclose tax assessment or tax billing records. Litigation has arisen and whether these records remain public will likely take years to resolve.
A major issue for state and local government alike is whether agencies must notify individuals prior to disclosing home addresses. The Supreme Court has been critical of the General Assembly for not implementing procedural mechanisms to empower individuals to challenge the disclosure of home addresses. The Commonwealth Court had previously prohibited School District’s from disclosing home addresses without notice, but this precedent was vacated by the Supreme Court.
Requiring government agencies to notify individuals of every disclosure of home addresses is untenable. The Department of State cannot mail a notice to every registered voter in Pennsylvania every time a voting list is disclosed. Counties cannot mail a notice to property owners every time assessment data is accessed online. It is likely that the General Assembly never addressed this issue because home addresses are historically public and there are no reported instances that disclosure of home addresses caused substantial harm.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, government agencies must assess disclosure of home addresses on a record by record basis. The courts will continue to carve out rules regarding access and notice to public records containing home addresses.
Note: Nauman Smith represented an intervening party in the PSEA matter.