Dist. 92 state Rep. John Blanton recently prefiled a bill that would criminalize the release of any personal information of law enforcement officials through the state’s open records law, and the bill has received backlash from legal experts, who claim it is unconstitutional and “a clear violation” of the First Amendment.
The bill, RS BR 985, would prohibit the electronic publishing, posting, reposting or otherwise disclosing of any personal information of all current, former or retired law enforcement officials — including police officers, judges and prosecutors — and their immediate family through the Kentucky Open Records Act, Kentucky’s open records law.
Disclosing such information would be a Class A misdemeanor (subject to imprisonment for up to 12 months) unless the dissemination was performed intentionally, in which case it would be a Class D felony (subject to imprisonment for up to 5 years). Families of the official, or the official themselves, may file a class action lawsuit against the individual who shared the information if they believe it harmed them. Records custodians could also face prosecution and personal financial liability for disclosing this information.
Blanton said he was approached by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts to file the bill. It was modeled after Daniel’s Law, he said, which was legislation passed in New Jersey this year that protects the home addresses and telephone numbers of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers from public disclosure. The law was named in honor of U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas’ son Daniel Anderl who was shot, along with Salas’ husband Mark, in their New Jersey home by an individual who allegedly found Salas’ home address online and posed as a FedEx driver before entering the judge’s home. Daniel was killed in the attack.
Blanton said the bill is meant to protect the identifying information of law enforcement officials from anyone who would seek, according to the bill, “to intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass or frighten” those officials.
“The intention of this bill is to separate the professional life and private life of the individuals named, the judges, prosecutors and law enforcement that’s involved in the prosecution of people,” Blanton said. “The purpose in this is to protect the location, residence, personal information of these folks to prevent them from being targeted for violence because of them performing their jobs.”
“Personal identifying information,” as stated in the bill, includes the law enforcement official’s first and last name, date of birth, Social Security number, home or physical address, birth and marriage records, property tax or property ownership records and directions to or identifying photography of any primary, secondary or vacation residence.
This information would also include the official’s email addresses, home, personal mobile or direct telephone number, vehicle registration, photographs of any vehicle, photographs of license plates, photographs of vehicle registration or VIN numbers, financial account numbers or credit or debit card numbers, school, daycare or employment locations, biometric, health or medical data or insurance information and identification of any of their children under the age of 18.
Any personal information that has been released or published before the effective date of the bill would need to be removed within seven days of the bill’s effective date or within 72 hours after a written request from the official or their family. Any information from a public agency that is currently published on the Internet would need to be redacted within 72 hours of the effective date of the bill. However, any personal information necessary for storage or use by a public agency that is essential to perform a governmental function will be exempt.
The Kentucky Press Association has released a statement in opposition to the bill, calling it unconstitutional and “a clear violation of the First Amendment.” The KPA argued that the bill is “so broadly written” that it goes “far beyond its supposed purpose.”
“The bill goes far beyond its purported goal of protecting the private information of certain public employees (police officers, prosecutors, judges and administrative hearing officers),” according to the KPA. “The bill will unconstitutionally criminalize the publication of even the most basic identifying information — like someone’s name — even if that information is already widely available.”
Under the bill, KPA argued, “anyone who has served or is currently serving in any law enforcement capacity — or is related by marriage or blood to, and lives with, them — is covered by the act in perpetuity,” which would include Blanton himself since he is a retired Kentucky State Trooper. KPA argued that Blanton would need to remove all personal information of himself or his family — including their names and any other information that could be used to identify them — from his campaign website, www.blantonforkentucky.com, within seven days of the passage of the bill.
Additionally, KPA argued that the Legislative Research Commission would not be allowed to publish Blanton’s name as the bill’s sponsor, and it would need to take down his legislative biography from its server and would not be allowed to publish any information regarding his votes as state representative.
KPA also argued that the bill would include Gov. Andy Beshear, who formerly served as Kentucky Attorney General. The KPA argued that the bill would make it illegal for anyone to publish, repost or share Beshear’s name and address — which is 704 Capitol Avenue, otherwise known as the Governor’s Mansion.
“Rep. Blanton has on several occasions violated his own proposed bill,” KPA argued. “For example, on May 24, 2020, Rep. Blanton tweeted a denouncement of protesters who burned Gov. Beshear in effigy in front of the Governor’s Mansion. That tweet is a felony under Rep. Blanton’s bill.”
The Kentucky Press Association stated that it takes threats to public employees seriously, and it argued that the bill is “not a serious response to those threats.”
“The bill’s sponsors have not, and cannot, offer a single example of when a public employee was harmed because of information that was released under the Open Records Act,” according to KPA. “Of course, public information — such as a person’s name and address — has been publicly available for decades in numerous forums such as The White Pages, state tax records, property titles and political contribution records to name a few.”
KPA referred to the bill as “a solution in search of a problem” and “an assault on transparency.”
“It can only be described as an assault on transparency and Kentuckians’ right to know what their government is doing in their name,” according to KPA. “KPA is firm in its conviction that no legislator can support such a draconian bill and call themselves a champion of government transparency.”
Blanton, in response to the criticism, said that he understands the concerns regarding the language of his prefiled bill. He said that his intent was not to “circumvent the Open Records Act,” and he is open to working with anyone interested in strengthening the bill. He also argued that he believes the home address, personal email or unlisted telephone number of law enforcement officials do not “serve the need for protecting access to information.”
“While I believe in government transparency, I would hope we can all agree that the home address, personal email, or unlisted home telephone number of someone who spends their professional career committed to public safety does not serve the need for protecting access to information,” he said in a statement. “I believe we can protect transparency while preventing someone from recklessly, knowingly, and purposefully disclosing information that can be used to harm them. We have to look no further than what happened to Daniel Anderl and recent ‘doxing’ cases for evidence that we live in a time when personal information is too readily accessible to those who wish to do harm.
“Again, I am open to working with anyone willing to sit down and have a constructive conversation about how we can improve this bill.”