(CN) – A Virginia woman has the right to publish government officials’ Social Security numbers online to make the point that those numbers should not be made available to the public, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Betty Ostergren is an information privacy advocate who runs a website called Thevirginiawatchdog.com.
She was concerned that land records were being published on Virginia counties’ websites without the Social Security numbers redacted, so she began to publish them herself.
Armed with someone else’s Social Security number, she said, an identity thief could order fraudulent checks or credit cards. In 2008, the public had online access to 200 million Virginia land records.
Ostergren posted the information of government officials who she believed had the influence to address the problem.
The Virginia General Assembly said clerks could redact the Social Security numbers, but they failed to appropriate the necessary funds for the redaction software. Most of Virginia’s counties have completed the redaction process, but 15 of the 120 counties still had not by mid-2008.
“Seeing a document containing an SSN posted on my website makes a viewer understand instantly, at a gut level, why it is so important to prevent the government from making this information available online,” Ostergren said.
Instead, state lawmakers took action to outlaw Ostergren’s behavior.
Ostergren filed a First Amendment complaint against state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, who agreed not to prosecute Ostergren under the new law during the trial.
The federal judge found the Virginia law unconstitutional, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond upheld this portion of the ruling.
But Judge Allyson Duncan disagreed with the state’s claim that the Social Security numbers did not deserve constitutional protection because they make identity theft easier and are not part of the forum of ideas.
“The unredacted SSNs on Virginia land records that Ostergren has posted online are integral to her message. Indeed, they are her message,” Duncan wrote.
“Given her criticism about how public records are managed, we cannot see how drawing attention to the problem by displaying those very documents could be considered unprotected speech,” she added, reversing the lower court’s ruling and remanding.