Congress passes revised driver’s privacy protection measure

Wednesday, October 6, 1999

States would risk losing federal transportation dollars if they don't obtain express permission from citizens before selling information from state motor vehicle records under a provision of a budget bill passed by Congress this week.

After several months of volleying the bill between the chambers of Congress, the Senate put its final stamp on the $50 billion transportation appropriations bill on Oct. 4 with a vote of 88-3. The House approved the measure last week with a voice vote. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill.

But the Society of Professional Journalists, which is meeting in Indianapolis this week for its annual convention, strongly urged the president to veto the bill and to ask Congress to send him a transportation bill void of privacy laws.

Specifically, the group said the provision to restrict states' ability to sell motor vehicle information would essentially close the records to the public. Only law enforcement officials would be able to use the records.

“We've asked the president to veto the bill and to tell Congress to not include anything in the bill that doesn't have to do with transportation appropriations,” said Ian Marquand, chairman of SPJ's freedom-of-information committee.

Press advocates say they fear the privacy provision would further erode access to public documents. They say the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act has already hindered access to motor vehicle records in many states.

Passed in 1994, the privacy law prohibits states from releasing information from driver's license and motor vehicle registrations unless a system is first established to allow citizens a way to forbid the release of their personal information.

Many states adopted an “opt-out” process, whereby citizens could inform the state in writing if they didn't want that information made available to the public.

Under the new proposal, states would have to develop an “opt-in” system, whereby officials would have to obtain the express written consent of citizens before they sell the information to groups that use the records for surveys, marketing or solicitations. States that fail to comply could lose millions in federal highway dollars.

The original provision of the transportation bill, sponsored in the Senate by Richard Shelby, R-Ala., would have forbidden state officials from providing any motor vehicle information without consent. Shelby's staff contends that because only the sale of the records would be regulated, the newsgathering process wouldn't be further inhibited.

The measure created a stir the journalism community, sparking disagreements over whether journalists should seek a special exemption to allow them to view the motor vehicle records. While some say the right of access should be open to all members of the public, others say journalists should find ways to keep records open even if the press has to ask for a limited right.

Despite some heated debate on journalism listservers and online newsgroups, SPJ passed its resolution asking Clinton to veto the transportation appropriations without any amendments or debate.

“We believe, as we have for some time, that the rights of the media and the rights of the public are as one,” Marquand said. “We don't claim any rights beyond what the general public has. To claim an exemption for the media then takes us into a discussion of what is the media and who is the media. We don't even want to get into that discussion.”