Protecting Access to Government Databases under Public Records Law

Technology Law Clinic students Patrick Wilson (BUSL ’20), Ally Faustin (BUSL ’20), Zach Sisko (BUSL ’19), and Lyndsey Wajert (BUSL ’19), outside of the John Adams Courthouse after the oral argument.

On Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard arguments in the case Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Public Health. The Clinic filed an amicus curiae brief (PDF) in the case on behalf of the editorial staff of The Tech, the MIT student newspaper, together with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Metro Corp. (publisher of Boston magazine), the New England Center for Investigative ReportingNew England First Amendment Coalition, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, the New York Times Company, North of Boston Media Group (publisher of several regional newspapers in northeastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire), and the editorial staff of the Free Press, the newspaper of the University of Southern Maine. 

The case concerns a request that the Boston Globe made under the Massachusetts Public Records Law (PRL) for an electronic copy of two databases containing Massachusetts birth and marriage records, held by the Department of Public Health. The records in question contain only basic information related to births and marriages, and are already made available to the public on an individual level. The Department denied the request, arguing among other things that the disclosure of the entire set of records would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy, and thus is exempt under specific provisions in the PRL.

The amicus brief, filed in support of the Boston Globe, brings a combination of law, data science, and examples from journalism to show why disclosure of this set of records does not create any privacy harms. Quoting from the brief:

This Court should not abandon its well-settled framework for evaluating exemption requests predicated on privacy concerns under the PRL simply because the Records contain numerous entries. To the extent that large datasets are different than other records, they can be analyzed simply by distinguishing between the “breadth” and the “depth” of the dataset in question. “Broad” but “shallow” datasets, like the Records here, which relate to numerous individuals but contain few details, pose much lower privacy risks than “deep” datasets of any breadth, which contain detailed information about each person in the set. […] In this case, because these Records contain very little information about each person, disclosing the Records will not create any new privacy risks.

The brief also gives a variety of examples of where journalists used records like these on stories about government accountability and other issues of public concern.

“The editors at The Tech were happy to participate in this amicus brief,” said Emma Bingham, Editor in Chief of The Tech. “As both journalists and students at one of the world’s top technical institutes, we understand the value of data access. We hope the Department of Public Health datasets in question in this case will soon be available to all newspapers, so that they use them to continue to hold our government accountable and produce interesting and informative reporting. We believe this is especially important for small local and university newspapers, which play an important role in their communities, but often have fewer resources to spend gathering data.”

Clinic students Alexandra Faustin (BUSL ’20), Zachary Sisko (BUSL ’19), Lyndsey Wajert (BUSL ’19), and Patrick Wilson (BUSL ’20) drafted the brief, with help from Clinic director Andy Sellars, Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor Julissa Milligan, and attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

View all posts