Bill Would Protect Personal Contact Information Used for Government News or Alerts

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp testified in support of emergency legislation that would protect an individual’s personal contact information that is used to provide official government news or emergency alerts from disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) before the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on February 21, 2018. The bill (SB 477) was sponsored by Senator Cheryl Kagan and is a Maryland Municipal League Legislative Priority. The bill is also a component of MACo’s larger PIA Legislative Initiative that also addresses the release of personal surveillance video and a person’s social security number and date of birth.

In his testimony, Knapp expressed concerns that allowing disclosure of personal contact information under the PIA  could actually lead to a chilling effect on people seeking out information about government activities or receiving alerts. Knapp also focused on the narrow scope of the bill’s restriction on disclosure:

It is a fundamental principle of both the State and local governments in Maryland that public information be easily available to residents and other interested parties. A primary method of providing such information is through official newsletters and emergency alert notices. Whether through mailings, email, or text messages, individuals can receive information about government activities or emergency events.

However, under the PIA, anyone can request a person’s contact information contained in these distribution lists and the State or local governments are generally required to provide them….Disclosure of personal contact information has led to people being spammed with unwanted commercial or political communications.

This also creates a disincentive for people to use government subscription services and erodes the public’s trust in our institutions. Ironically, many private companies have stronger protections in place about disclosing customer information than Maryland’s governments do for their own residents.

The bill only applies to personal contact information used solely for the passive distribution of official news or emergency alerts. It does not apply to personal contact information provided as part of an “active” engagement with a government agency or official.

For example, an individual’s contact information remains subject to PIA disclosure when the individual: (1) sends a letter providing comments on a proposed ordinance or regulation; (2) requests government action on an issue, such as fixing a pothole; (3) signs up to speak at a public hearing or meeting; or (4) submits a PIA request. The bill also still allows disclosure of aggregate subscriber data – just not the release of personal contact information.

Carroll County Attorney Timothy Burke joined Knapp in supporting the bill and recounted a recent legal challenge that required the  County to turn over contact information for all subscribers to the County Commissioners’ official newsletter. Several Maryland Municipal League representatives and municipal officials were on hand to support their priority. Common Cause of Maryland and the Maryland/Delaware/District of Columbia Press Association also testified in support of the bill. No one testified in opposition.

HB 677 is the cross-file to SB 477 and will be heard by the House Health and Government Operations Committee on February 21.

Useful Links

SB 477 of 2018

MACo Testimony on SB 477

Senator Cheryl Kagan Webpage

Conduit Street Article on MACo’s 2018 Legislative Initiatives