- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

RICHMOND | A privacy advocate filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a new state law prohibiting citizens from disseminating Social Security numbers that anyone can legally obtain from government Web sites.

Betty “BJ” Ostergren claims the statute, scheduled to take effect July 1, is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. She asked the federal court here to block enforcement of the law until the case is decided.

Ms. Ostergren has gleaned from online government records the Social Security numbers of many prominent people - former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, actress Kelly Ripa and football star Joe Namath among them - and posted them on her own Web site to demonstrate government’s failure to protect individuals’ privacy.

Her efforts have helped persuade officials in some states to remove personal information from online records, she says. The Virginia General Assembly, however, responded by unanimously passing legislation making her tactics illegal and punishable by a $2,500 civil penalty.

“I think the legislature, to have targeted me instead of fixing the real problem, which is the Circuit Court clerks leaving Social Security numbers on records that are now going to be available in people’s homes, was wrong,” Ms. Ostergren said. “They did target me, because I’m the only one in the state doing it, and I’m not going to stand for it. I’m not going to lose my First Amendment rights.”

The lawsuit names Attorney General Bob McDonnell as the sole defendant. Lawyers in his office were reviewing the lawsuit and had no comment yesterday, a spokesman said.

State Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, did not respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment. Mr. Houck said after Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, signed the measure in March that he could see no purpose in anyone distributing a Social Security number found online.

The American Civil Liberties Union supports privacy rights but thinks legislators took the wrong approach in targeting people like Ms. Ostergren, state ACLU executive director Kent Willis said. The ACLU is representing Ms. Ostergren in the lawsuit.

“The primary purpose of this law seems to be to mask the fact that Virginia legislators have failed to prevent Social Security numbers from being placed on Web sites,” Mr. Willis said. “Rather than fixing the law and requiring they be redacted, they punish individuals who take the records and use them.”

State law already prohibits people from disclosing Social Security numbers obtained from private sources.

However, millions of public records, ranging from land deeds to divorce decrees, are available online and contain Social Security numbers and other private information.

“If the government is going to put a record on a Web site for the public to view, it can’t prevent the public from disseminating that information,” Mr. Willis said.

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