The Question Is: Privacy for Whom?
File this under “it figures”:
A First Amendment lawyer who regularly litigates cases involving access to government records said Monday that compared with other states, Rhode Island appears to have far more exemptions in its laws allowing government officials to hide information from the public.
“Let’s say that Rhode Island seems to really have more of a focus on individual privacy than other states,” Gregory V. Sullivan commented at the end of a lecture organized by the New England First Amendment Coalition and ACCESS/RI at the Providence Athenaeum.
Sullivan did not specifically say that Rhode Island has too many exemptions, but suggested that there were some exemptions that the state’s lawmakers should review and consider abolishing, such as one protecting “communications” between officials and constituents.
Individual privacy is a wonderful principle, but this is a very narrow range by which to judge its application in our state. Out in the anonymous public, we might look at the surfeit of regulations, the variety of occupations for which one requires permits, the oppressive fire code, the requirement to report out-of-state purchases for the purpose of being taxed at Rhode Island’s excessive difference, and the periodic noises about taxing cars per mile driven and wonder whose privacy we privilege.
Even the state’s constitutional liberalism belies an affinity for broad privacy. Employees registered as union members are on lists broader than those kept by an individual company. Our emphasis on a safety net — from TDI to unemployment to welfare — inevitably requires as its entry the disclosure of highly personal information. Tiverton, for example, compensates for its high rate of tax increases by offering a hardship exemption, but to qualify townsfolk must divulge highly detailed and private information to local government officials.
I’d say that Sullivan’s spin on RI policy is much like the frequent proclamation of the state’s quality of life: It’s there for those who can afford it, and those who can afford it are increasingly able to do so only by gaining insider status by one route or another.