Strippers sue to prevent identity disclosure

An exotic dancer performs on a stage in Tampa, Florida. Image copyright Getty Images

Government open-records requests can be boring. Government open-records requests made by a man who wants to obtain information about 70 licensed strippers in his town so he can "pray for them", on the other hand...

The godly citizen in question is David Allen Van Vleet of Tacoma, Washington. In September he filed court papers to obtain personal information on 70 government-licensed nude dancers at a nightclub in his area - including their full names, addresses, photos and dates of birth.

(Yes, Washington requires nude dancers to pay a $75 (£47) a year licence fee. If government oversight is good enough for beauticians, it seems, it's good enough for lap dancers.)

The county auditor granted his request under the state's open-records law - although she also notified area dancers and club managers of her action. On 21 October two licensees sued to block the release of the information. Two days later a county judge issued a temporary order blocking the release, with a final decision scheduled for 15 December.

Mr Van Vleet was not happy with the judge's action.

"He essentially silenced 7 million people in the state of Washington to protect 70 people's so-called right to privacy who dance on a stage naked," he said.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, on the other hand, told the Associated Press that Mr Van Vleet's interests were trumped by his clients's rights.

"There's some stigma attached to the occupation, and most dancers for personal privacy reasons and safety reasons, don't want the customers to know who they are outside of the club," he said.

The case has set up an unusual debate over free speech and privacy rights. What deserves more consideration, open access to government records or adult entertainers' right to "artistic" expression under stage names?

"It's entirely likely the person who wants this information is a crazy stalker or an anti-sex nutjob," writes Reason magazine's Elizabeth Nolan Brown. "Maybe both. Maybe merely a blackmailer or a 4chan-er. At any rate, it's hard to imagine many non-nefarious reasons for requesting personal information on a wide swath of individuals in a sensitive job."

She points to a 2013 case where another Tacoma man who had been arrested for stalking and convicted of intimidating a judge tried to use the same public record laws to get contact information for strippers so he could offer them his social media marketing services (or so he claimed). He obtained nearly 100 records before a stripper-initiated lawsuit ended his requests.

There's just no reason for a government-maintained stripper database, she says.

The editors of the Tacoma News Tribune worry that the judge's decision could be the first step in permanently weakening the state's open records law, however.

"We don't quarrel with the outcome so much as the process," they write. "It suggests a federal judge can step in at his own discretion and void parts of the act because they don't feel right to him."

"It doesn't matter if you think the citizen is annoying or that he might do something irritating with the licence information," they continue. "There is no constitutional right not to be embarrassed or criticised."

The case could have larger implications as well, writes the Washington Post's Eugene Volokh. For instance a decision supporting Mr Van Vleet could be cited by those who want to access information on licensed gun owners.

The Columbia Journalism Review's Jonathan Peters concludes that conflict between open records and privacy concerns has few clear solutions. The laws in the US are a patchwork of different standards and legal precedents.

Give public officials discretion to withhold public records requests made with flimsy justification, and there's the chance that they could abuse that power. Give out too much information, however, and individuals could find embarrassing or personal information revealed.

"Government records contain all manner of personal information that citizens are required to disclose under certain circumstances: data related to births, deaths, marriages, arrests, and so on - even family dynamics, financial status, and health condition, and contact information," he writes.

Too much government disclosure could leave even the most reticent individual feeling a bit naked.

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