You don’t get to make up the law as you along. Even if you’re a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Ron Leighton’s tentative decision last week to block the release of dancers’ business licenses could be a step toward eviscerating Washington’s Public Records Act. We don’t quarrel with the outcome so much as the process. It suggests a federal judge can step in at his own discretion and void parts of the act because they don’t feel right to him.
The case involves a Pierce County man, David Van Vleet, who appears to have obnoxious tendencies. He has asked the Pierce County Auditor’s Office to give him the business licenses of approximately 70 dancers and managers at a Parkland strip club, DreamGirls at Fox’s. He wants to pray for the strippers, he said.
One would think God could figure out who the strippers are without Van Vleet knowing all the details on their licenses, which include their stage and legal names, birth dates, signatures and photos.
But public officials in this state don’t get to play favorites under the Public Records Act. As Auditor Julie Anderson recognized, the law clearly obligates public agencies to release business licenses to citizens who ask for them. It doesn’t matter if you think the citizen is annoying or that he might do something irritating with the license information.
The dancers’ lawyer is arguing that the information should be suppressed under some sort of constitutional “privacy” right. The U.S. Supreme Court’s privacy decisions, though, have precise boundaries. They are limited to disputes in specific areas, like family law and reproductive rights.
They aren’t a vague, general warrant to conceal any government information that might make someone feel uncomfortable, especially in the absence of a demonstrated threat. An endlessly elastic “comfort zone” guarantee could strike without warning against any number of open government laws.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court almost scoffed when petitioners opposed to gay marriage sued to conceal their identities for fear of retaliation. Not even the right to petition – which is explicitly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights – carries exemption from Washington’s public disclosure laws.
If a federal court could peremptorily void the Public Records Act’s mandate to release dancers’ licenses, why couldn’t the court suppress the release of other kinds of licenses for similar reasons?
One of the dancers in this lawsuit, for example, says she’s afraid that her license information might help an abusive ex find her. That’s a very common problem, and it’s not restricted to strippers. Couldn’t a cosmetologist make the same argument? A bail bondsman? A cab driver?
Licensed strippers don’t ply their trade in secret; many perform in places anyone can walk into. But if dancers can demonstrate an unusual need to conceal their identities, there’s a way to handle that: Change the Public Records Act. An anti-stalker provision, for example, might be warranted.
There is no constitutional right not to be embarrassed or criticized. If there were, we might as well chuck the entire Public Records Act into Commencement Bay.