By John Pinkney
When government agencies communicate with the public, those officials must balance the public’s need to know with individual privacy rights.
What Information Can and Cannot Be Released to the Public
Government agencies are funded by taxpayers, and therefore, are accountable to the general public who pays the bills, except for obvious exceptions such as sensitive, Top Secret military and security data.
Therefore, under the Privacy Act, government employees may not release personally identifiable information about private individuals.
For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) operates with certain communications principles to protect the public:
- They release scientifically accurate health information to the public, to Congress and the news media.
- This includes final reports, all information and its recommendations.
- Information released will be open and scientifically accurate.
- The agency will not fail to disclose information solely to protect itself from embarrassment or criticism.
- When it makes suggestions, these will be based on accurate science.
Those principles are especially significant because the CDC works on public health issues. The agency must know how to issue health warnings that are scientifically accurate.
If cases of Zika virus or Ebola (for example) are found in the United States, it is the CDC’s responsibility to inform the public how to avoid these diseases as effectively as possible, but not to cause mass panic. They also may not release the names of any disease victims because they have the right to privacy.
Guiding Government and State Agencies in Palm Springs
Our Palm Springs public agency law attorney can help guide government and state agencies with what to disclose per the Privacy Act. In addition, we can help anyone make a Freedom of Information Act request for government information.