A court hearing Thursday will pit Washington state’s Public Records Act against the free speech and privacy protections laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton could decide whether to allow Pierce County to release the business licenses of workers at a Parkland strip club — an action the employees say would violate their privacy and threaten their ability to continue working.
Attorneys representing 70 dancers and managers at Dream Girls at Fox’s sued Pierce County last week to block the release of the records, which had been requested by a man named David Van Vleet, who listed an Auburn post office box as his mailing address.
A day later, Leighton granted a two-week temporary restraining order preventing the county from releasing the employees’ business licenses — which contain personal information such as their stage and legal names, birth dates, photos, weight and eye color — until after a court hearing Thursday.
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At the hearing, Leighton will have a chance to hear arguments from both sides and could rule that day whether to release the records.
Both sides agree that no provisions of the state Public Records Act prevent the documents from being released to the public.
At issue is whether release of the records violates the employees’ free speech and privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution — questions Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson described as “above my pay grade.”
Anderson, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said there are no exemptions in the state Public Records Act that allow her to withhold the employees’ business licenses for reasons of safety or privacy. Had the court not intervened with a temporary restraining order, the Auditor’s Office would have released the records Monday.
“We couldn’t find a state law that was applicable,” Anderson said. “The definition of privacy is very narrow.”
But Seattle attorney Gilbert Levy, who is representing the Dream Girls employees, argued in court documents that releasing personal information such as employees’ legal names and birth dates would allow Van Vleet and others to find out more detailed personal information about the plaintiffs, such as their addresses and family members’ names.
As a result, the employees “may choose to discontinue dancing or may choose not to renew their licenses for fear of stalking, harassment, discrimination, embarrassment and acts of violence,” Levy wrote in the complaint.
That would “have a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech rights,” the complaint reads.
Levy didn’t return a reporter’s call for comment Monday.
The temporary restraining order is set to expire Oct. 29. If the judge declines to rule in the case or doesn’t extend the restraining order, the Auditor’s Office could release the documents after that point.