Freedom Foundation attorney Sydney Phillips got to make back-to-back arguments on Jan. 14 to the Washington State Division 1 Court of Appeals in a pair of separate but similar lawsuits, each concerning the organization’s ability to fully access the contact information of state, county and local employees.
In both cases, lawyers for the state and the labor unions representing its employees tried to portray the standoff as a threat to the workers’ privacy when, in fact, their real concern is keeping the Freedom Foundation from informing them about their recently affirmed Constitutional right to decline union membership and dues deductions.
The first case, Washington Education Association (WEA), et al, v. Department of Retirement Systems, et al, concerns a 2020 information request by the Freedom Foundation to obtain the full names and birthdates of public employees working for the state Department of Retirement Services and the Office of Financial Management.
Nearly a month later, on March 26, 2020, a group of three unions filed a complaint to block release of that information. In April 2020, a Thurston County Superior Court judge granted the union’s request, ruling that a bill passed by the Washington State Legislature exempted the information sought by the Freedom Foundation from public information requests.
During the Appeals Court hearing on Jan. 14, Phillips argued the Freedom Foundation was entitled to the information in part because it is, by legal standards, a news organization and media requests are an exception to the new law.
The state’s lawyers responded that the Freedom Foundation never raised the “news organization” exception in its earlier pleadings.
The second case, Washington Federation of State Employees (WPEA), et al. v. Freedom Foundation, et al, dates back to a 2019 information request by the Freedom Foundation to “various state and local government agencies requesting disclosure of union represented employees’ full names, birthdates, and work email addresses” among other records.
The agencies reviewed the information requests, determined that all the requested records were disclosable and indicated that, absent a court order, they intended to release the requested records including the employees’ full names associated with their corresponding birthdates and the employees’ work email addresses.
Again, the unions filed motions to prevent the disclosure of the requested records. A Superior Court judge granted the unions’ motions for preliminary injunctions to prevent the agencies from disclosing most of the requested information. Ultimately, the unions were granted a permanent injunction preventing the release of over a thousand public records.
During the Jan. 14 hearing, the unions’ lawyer argued that considering a government employee’s name and birthdate public information exposed workers to, for example, risk of harassment from estranged spouses, and much of the discussion concerned ways to make the information available while still protecting their privacy.
“The whole argument is nothing but a diversion because the unions couldn’t care less about the workers’ privacy,” Phillips said. “This is information the Freedom Foundation uses to inform public workers of their constitutional rights. There is no risk of harm from lawfully disclosed records.”
Phillips said the unions and their allies in the Washington Attorney General’s Office are concerned with one thing only — making sure workers only hear one side of the story.
The unions’ side.