When Does The First Amendment Prevent The Release Of Public Records? When It Involves Strippers

dreamgirlsWhen two rights conflict, which one is given priority? This was the question recently put before a federal court in Washington state, where a group of strippers were trying to prevent their real names and other personal information from being shared publicly even though state law seems to require that their identities be released upon request.

Here’s the background of the case. Dancers and managers and adult entertainment establishments in Pierce County, WA, are required to obtain licenses from the county auditor’s office. And under the Washington Public Records Act, the county auditor is required to disclose public records upon request. There are some exemptions to that mandate, but none that would include exotic dancers.

But when a local man made a request through the auditor to release the license info — which includes the licensee’s full name and date of birth — for the dancers at one Pierce County club, the dancers there sued to block that request.

They also asked the court for a preliminary injunction against releasing the requested information, as once it’s been released you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

While the man requesting the information claims that the information would be used to pray on behalf of the strippers, the plaintiffs — using the anonymous “Jane Roe” name for the suit — point out that the defendant has previously been convicted of violating anti-harassment protection orders, and they fear their true identities — information that could be used to learn the location of their homes and family members — would be used by the defendant and others to harass them.

If so, the plaintiffs argue they may no longer be able to work and express themselves in a form that is protected by the First Amendment.

In a recent ruling [PDF], a U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma writes that the dancers have “raised serious questions regarding whether their First Amendment freedoms and their right to informational privacy would be violated by the disclosure of the requested records.”

He also found that the strippers are “likely to suffer irreparable injury,” the loss of their First Amendment rights, and that the “fruits of the litigation will be irretrievably lost” unless a preliminary injunction is granted.

“Plaintiffs may suffer harassment and threats to their physical safety once their private information is disclosed,” added the judge, who also concluded that the defendant who requested the data “will not be harmed if public disclosure is restrained pending trial on the merits.”

Basically, the judge is saying that there is no urgent need for the license information to be disclosed to the public and that it can wait for a court to decide the matter.

As Eugene Volokh pointed out in a recent Washington Post column, it’s possible that the argument used by the dancers could be tried by those who oppose the public disclosure of personal information about people with licenses for firearms.

One could argue — though a court may not accept it — that, much like the release of dancers’ names may inhibit their First Amendment rights to perform, that the release of gun-owners’ names might inhibit people from taking advantage of their Second Amendment rights.

[via CJR]

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