Publishing public record information

We received a complaint from a reader; a complaint concerning Historic City News as well as The Record and the St. Johns County Clerk of Court who publish information about applicants for local marriage licenses.

Florida has some of the strongest open-government laws in the country, and every year state lawmakers try to expand them — or attempt to whittle down what information will be made public in accordance with Chapter 119 F.S.

In years past, social security numbers appeared on bankruptcy petitions, civil judgments and tax liens that were readily available to the general public. Clerks of Court in Florida have been ordered to redact this information from their records that appear over the Internet.

An alternate example would be voter’s registration records. In the past, these records were only available to registered candidates, political committees and qualified political organizations — all of whom had to certify that the voter information would be used strictly for political analysis and campaign purposes. Today, your name, address, party affiliation and even a history of each election in which you voted are available to anyone for the asking and payment of a modest fee.

The First Amendment Foundation was formed as a non-profit organization in 1984 by The Florida Press Association, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Florida Association of Broadcasters to ensure that public commitment and progress in the areas of free speech, free press, and open government do not become checked and diluted during Florida’s changing times.

Historic City News, The Record, and many other online and print media sources publish public record information like marriage licenses, business licenses and real estate transactions, to name a few. The information is provided as a convenience to our readers but is taken from sources that are available for public inspection; in the case of Historic City News, an online news journal, taken directly from the websites of the custodian of records.

Nobody wants to enable a stalker, but, nobody is prepared to surrender their right to inspect or publish records that are accumulated from business transactions between the public and agencies of Florida government. The Internet search engines have made it easier to locate information — both public and private — and the convenience of that technology has enabled people to accomplish a wide array of dealings; legitimate or otherwise.

The writer mentioned that publishing the marriage license may cause her new husband to “quite possibly end up in court again, because you people helped (his ex-wife) track him down”.

The writer had, essentially, the same complaint because The Record published the information and she was obviously upset because she claimed that “we were ASSURED by the court of records in St. Augustine that our wedding date would not be published online”. We publish the recording date which may predate or postdate the wedding by as much as 30 days.

The writer also said “Up until the last minute we were afraid that she was going to show up and sabotage our wedding.” That makes me very suspicious since it refutes the writer’s claim that we published her “wedding date” and could not have done that until after the fact.

I would not speculate if he was hiding from child support enforcement or still legally married to the “other woman” but I will say the extreme concern for the writer’s privacy in such a public transaction seems a bit odd.

In response, we will continue to publish marriage licenses because our readers have asked for it.

Bridal shops, wedding planners and photographers, jewelry stores, real estate agents representing apartments and homes, as well as an assortment of appliance dealers, mattress and bedding vendors and kitchenware dealers might be interested in the names of people who are, or are about to be, recently married.

It is impossible to say, with certainty, the method by which someone acquired publicly available information — but so long as the information was made available by the custodian of records, it really doesn’t matter.