In a long-awaited decision, the Washington State Supreme Court today ruled 5-4 in favor of the Freedom Foundation in WPEA v. Freedom Foundation, holding that public employees’ names and dates of birth are subject to disclosure under the state Public Records Act (PRA).
“Today’s ruling is a great victory for the Freedom Foundation and upholds Washington’s strong tradition of open government,” said Freedom Foundation executive vice president Brian Minnich.
“The Public Records Act is a powerful tool that helps government watchdogs, the media and citizen activists monitor the actions of public officials and, if necessary, hold them accountable. The Supreme Court was right to reject this attempt by government unions to undermine it.”
The case stems from a series of requests for public records the Freedom Foundation submitted to various state agencies in 2016 seeking the names, birthdates and work email addresses of union-represented public employees. The Foundation sought the lists to help it distribute informational material to union-represented public employees about their right to refrain from or resign union membership.
The agencies believed they had to fulfill the request. However, a coalition of several labor unions representing public employees filed suit in state court to block the agencies from providing the information to the Freedom Foundation.
A Thurston County Superior Court judge sided with the Freedom Foundation in July 2016. However, the Court of Appeals in 2017 reversed the trial court and the Freedom Foundation appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which heard the case in June 2018.
While the unions raised several objections, they primarily contended disclosure of the information would violate public employees’ privacy, though this was simply a smokescreen for their opposition to the Freedom Foundation’s work to inform public employees of their rights.
The names, birthdates and home addresses of all registered voters have long been publicly available from the Secretary of State without any documented misuse. At the same time, media outlets and government watchdogs often rely on such information when documenting and reporting on the activities of public employees.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 holding in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees can no longer be forced to pay union dues, the Freedom Foundation has used employee lists obtained from the government to contact union-represented workers about their rights.
“Unions aren’t really concerned about public employees’ privacy,” said Minnich.
“This information has been subject to disclosure for years without union opposition. Unions used lists of public employees obtained from the government to unionize public employees in the first place. Now, unions routinely obtain detailed personal information about public employees, including even their Social Security numbers, from the government. Only when the Freedom Foundation requested basic information did unions cry foul. They simply want to be able to control the flow of information to public employees and don’t want the Freedom Foundation helping people understand they can drop their union membership.”
Despite the litigation, recent federal filings indicate at least some large government unions in Washington have already experienced marked membership declines. From June 2018 to June 2019, the number of public employees financially supporting the Washington Federation of State Employees fell by 27.4 percent.
Today’s ruling was the second victory for the Freedom Foundation in as many months before the Washington Supreme Court. In September, the Court ruled 9-0 that the University of Washington (UW) had to disclose to the Freedom Foundation emails related to union organizing that had been created, sent and stored using university email accounts, computers and servers. The Court rejected the argument by SEIU 925 that the emails were not created as part of UW employees’ jobs and were therefore not public records.