From time to time, we have complained about newspapers that feel compelled to print public payrolls – pay and names – on the grounds that the information is available. We have noted that with some exceptions for top executives, such publication is an invasion of privacy and invites identity theft. The newspaper answer is always some combination of a constitutional right – freedom of the press, etc. – plus the fact that the info is public. Yes, the info has been public all along but before the internet came along, it was de facto private in that you had to do some digging to get the info and a mass dump was not possible. As it is, UC employees’ pay by name is routinely published. (The same problem arises for pension payments.) I have challenged newspapers to print their own payrolls – they have a constitutional right to do so and the info is clearly available to them – but so far there have been no takers.
Recently, because of a case of ID theft that became part of a court record, a newspaper found what a member of a particular Indian gaming tribe was getting per month. The individual had his ID stolen and the thief was caught and tried. The paper printed the name of the victim and his monthly payment. See:
If you look at some of the comments by readers, you see the same kinds of questions raised including the issue of why the newspaper doesn’t reveal its own pay rates. Note that whether we are talking about public payrolls or payments from an Indian tribe, the info could have been published without naming the individual involved. Public payrolls could be summarized by job title with nice charts and distributions without naming names. Whatever point someone wants to make about public pay practices could be made that way.
After the recent Connecticut school shootings, a news source printed names of all those in the region who had gun permits with addresses. There was an outcry about that decision which, like all the others, was defended as constitutional and based on public info which had long been available. The fact is that there is a lot of info which is public but which newspapers choose not to print even though they have a right to do so. Names of rape victims are obvious examples. The right to publish also includes the right to decide not to publish. And, as noted above, so far all newspapers that publish public payrolls have exercised their constitutional right not to publish their own payrolls.