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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Washington

State House votes to add exemptions to the Public Records Act

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol Campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)
Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol Campus as evening approaches in Olympia. (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – A state Senate committee heard public testimony Tuesday for a bill to add new exemptions to the Public Records Act for survivors of domestic violence.

The bill would exempt personal information from public records requests for state and public school employees and their dependents who are survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault, harassment or stalking.

Exempt information includes the employees name, job site, title, birth date, work email and phone number. Information such as personal cellphone numbers, personal emails, home address and emergency contacts are already exempt from records requests. In total, there are over 500 exemptions to the Public Records Act.

Employees would be required to submit a sworn statement saying they’re a survivor of the listed offenses and that they have a reason to think they’re still at risk should their personal information be disclosed by a public records request. The exemption would last two years, subject to renewal at the employee’s request.

Supporters said this bill is essential to protect survivors of domestic abuse. Survivors like Juliane Williams, a state employee, said abusers go to extreme lengths to find information on victims, and filing public records requests are not out of the question.

“Stalkers, abusers, whatever you want to call them, they often are very resourceful,” Williams said. “But even more so they’re persistent.”

The protections in place that made Williams’ work address confidential weren’t enough, and her ex-husband was able to locate her place of work and come to her office, despite a restraining order.

“It was an assault on my security,” she said.

Opposition to this bill comes largely from news organizations, who say if passed, the exemptions would impede their ability to report on events within state agencies.

Reporters often file public records requests to obtain information on state employees, particularly useful in investigative endeavors to uncover abuse and malpractice.

Jonathan Martin, investigations editor at the Seattle Times, said public records requests made possible the reporting on a Northshore principal who covered up a teacher sexually assaulting students.

If that teacher had been exempt from the public records act under this bill, these wrongdoings may have gone unreported by news outlets, Martin said.

“I fear that to protect victims, you are potentially enabling predators,” Martin said.

Several state employees testified at the bill’s hearing, saying they had experienced harassment and threats to their lives while at work. Allison Fine, a state employee, said she received repeated phone calls from a former client’s parent saying they would “cut her into pieces.”

In addition to threats, they also filed two public records requests for her information and published the findings on social media.

“I’m in constant fear that one day those threats will become my reality,” Fine said.

Opponents expressed concerns that bad actors would take advantage of the protections of this bill, submitting sworn statements exempting themselves from public records requests without being survivors of domestic abuse.

If an exempt employee were the subject of a complaint or internal investigation, reporters wouldn’t have access to the names or other personal information exempted under this bill, just that the complaint was filed.

“Any employee submitting a statement would effectively become anonymous and invisible, with all evidence of them being a public employee concealed,” said Michael Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Lawmakers introduced two amendments after the public hearing, one that would create a task force to provide recommendations to the Legislature on the best course of action for implementing this bill. A second would make reporters an exception to the bill, allowing them to continue accessing exempt information. It would also require employees to validate their sworn statement by identifying a perpetrator or providing a police report or protection order. Lawmakers introduced the amendments Friday, though they haven’t taken a vote.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 80-15 with three representatives excused. It’s now the Senate’s turn to debate the bill. It received a public hearing Tuesday and is scheduled for a vote out of committee next week.

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