Relational Privacy Cases and Freedom of Information

Article excerpt

Study finds that if relational privacy reasoning is taken to its logical conclusion, access would be curtailed to a broad range of information related to deceased persons that has traditionally been available under federal and state access laws.

On August 26, 1990, while students were settling in for the fall semester at the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College, residents of Gainesville, Florida learned that two college students had been brutally murdered. In the next two days, three more students were found slain. Students began leaving campus, many at the insistence of worried parents. As word spread of the brutal nature of the killings, more students fled. The community - and indeed much of the nation - was in shock, the effects of which would linger for months.

November 15, 1991, Danny Rolling was indicted on five counts of murder. The following June Rolling pled guilty to the five murders, three rapes, and three burglaries before Circuit Judge Stan Morris. A jury was seated to pass sentence. As part of the jury deliberations, jurors viewed several graphic photographs of the crime scenes and autopsies. At some crime scenes, mutilated or decapitated bodies were posed to shock whoever discovered the crimes. Rolling was sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair.

The state attorney for Florida's Eighth Judicial Circuit, who had prosecuted the case, filed a motion on behalf of the victims' families after the trial to block public disclosure of crime scene and autopsy photos related to the murders. The graphic and shocking photographs, which no doubt influenced the jury in passing sentence, were held by Judge Morris to be public records subject to Florida's liberal public access laws.(1) As such, the photographs were required to be made publicly available.

Judge Morris was faced with an apparent dilemma: further traumatize the already brutalized families of the victims by making the photos public and available to tabloid media, or seal the photos in defiance of the state public records law. Instead, the judge chose an alternative course that, he reasoned, served both the interests of the families and the spirit of the state public access law. Focusing on what he saw as the paramount privacy rights of the families of the victims, he fashioned a compromise that would allow members of the public to personally view the photographs, but that ensured the images would never leave the Alachua County Courthouse.(2) Central to Judge Morris' reasoning was a 1991 federal district court decision, New York Times Co. v. NASA,(3) which prevented disclosure of an audio tape of the last words of the Challenger astronauts before the space shuttle exploded, based on the privacy interests of the victims' families.

This paper explores the concept of privacy in public records based on the interests of third persons who are not part of the records, a privacy interest that a number of courts have called relational privacy.(4) The paper first examines the issue of whose privacy interests are protected by the exemptions to public records laws. Next, the paper explores the Challenger case and the legal issues it raised. It then looks at subsequent cases that apply the notion of relational privacy to limit access to government records. Although relational privacy cases are relatively few in number at present, their long-term implications for access to information seem quite significant.

The paper concludes that while the instincts of the judges in both the Challenger and Gainesville cases to protect the families of victims of monumental tragedies are well intentioned, decisions based on concerns about relational privacy set dangerous precedents for access. Such reasoning could lead to reduced access whenever disclosure of information might cause mental anguish to anyone.

Statutory privacy: To whom does it accrue?

The federal Freedom of Information Act contains two exemptions that allow federal agencies to withhold information based on privacy interests. …