Wyoming Fixes Proposed Privacy Amendment

     CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CN) – A legislative task force voted to endorse a proposed amendment that would add privacy and open-government protections to the Wyoming Constitution.
     Wyoming lawmakers rejected a bill in June that would have amended the state constitution to prevent local and state governments from disclosing personal information.
     Concerns about whether such protections could be used to hide government abuse and criminal records of public officials stopped the bill.
     The Legislature’s Task Force on Digital Information Privacy unanimously voted last week on language for open-government protections, clearing the first of several hurdles for a new amendment to be considered during the 2016 legislative session.
     If approved by the Legislature, the amendment will go to voters in the 2016 general election.
     The amendment states that individual privacy is “essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest,” and that the amendment will not “deprive a person of any right provided by law to examine document[s] or to observe the deliberations of any agency or political subdivision of the state, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
     Wyoming Press Association executive director Jim Angell was not available for comment after hours Wednesday, but told Courthouse News in June that the language in the first bill was too broad.
     “There are no specifics. The language is gloriously huge,” he said at the time.
     Angell told The Billings (Montana) Gazette that by giving privacy constitutional status, “you elevate it above the rights of the public to see public information.”
     Task Force co-chairman Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, told the Gazette this week that he did not feel an open-government provision was necessary, but agreed to vote for one as a “compromise.”
     “I was sensitive to the interests that expressed that they didn’t want it to interfere with the Public Records Act,” he said. “I think we came up with a compromise that everyone can support.”
     Courthouse News could not reach Rothfuss after hours Wednesday.
     Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats, who specializes in public access matters, said the amendment was not necessary – period.
     The U.S. Constitution already guarantees privacy protections for citizens and the Wyoming and U.S. Supreme Courts have consistently recognized the public’s right of access to public records, he said.
     “I don’t know how the proposed amendment to the state’s constitution will play out,” Moats told The Gazette. “But because of the rule of unintended consequences, I’d rather things stay the way they are.”
     The amendment goes now to the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Affairs Interim Committee, which will decide whether to sponsor a bill for the 2016 legislative session.
     A two-thirds vote in both chambers is needed for it to appear on the 2016 general elections ballot.

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