The Environmental Protection Agency’s public release to environmental groups of personal details about the home locations and contact information of tens of thousands of farm and ranch families was unlawful. A lower court ruling that upheld the EPA action failed to address key privacy issues and should be reversed, according to court documents filed today by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Farm Bureau, along with the National Pork Producers Council, filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to overturn an earlier district court ruling. That ruling held, in part, that because some of the information had been posted online by state agencies, EPA was free to publicly release the same information under the Freedom of Information Act.
The brief to the appeals court states that there is no “merit to the (district court’s) suggestion that citizens lack a privacy interest in information that appears on the Internet. That theory is one that might appeal to George Orwell, but it is not one that has a basis in law or common sense.”
“Personal information is ubiquitous on the Internet; if the mere appearance of information on a website destroyed any continuing privacy interest in that information, privacy would be dead. The Supreme Court’s FOIA precedents foreclose that conclusion,” the brief stated.
According to the brief, EPA’s disclosure of the requested information serves only one purpose: “to put in the hands of environmental activists information that will help them to investigate and harass family farms on their own, in their efforts to bring private lawsuits against family farmers.”
The brief states that “the disclosure of information such as names, addresses, and other personal identifying information, like the data at issue, creates a palpable threat to privacy.”
In addition, the brief states that farms and ranches are inherently different from typical businesses in that information divulged typically leads to a home residence of a farm or ranch family.
“Most businesses’ mailing addresses lead to offices or factories; their telephones are answered by receptionists and secretaries; and their GPS coordinates point to parking lots or security-guard booths,” the brief states. “But family farms are fundamentally different — or the great majority of them, their businesses are their homes. Their driveways lead not only to their fields and their hen houses, but also to the swing sets where their children play. Their business telephone numbers are answered not by nameless receptionists in florescent-lit offices, but by their spouses in their family kitchens, and their children in their upstairs bedrooms.
“If anything, the fact that the disclosed information concerns farmers as both individuals and businesses is a greater reason to find the information protected, not the other way around.”
The EPA shocked the farming and ranching community in early 2013 when it publicly released a massive database of personal information about tens of thousands of livestock and poultry farmers, ranchers and their families in multiple states. The information was collected from state regulatory agencies and then distributed to three environmental groups that had filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The database included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses and GPS coordinates, home telephone numbers and personal emails.
“We wholeheartedly support government transparency, but we insist on protecting the privacy of farm and ranch families,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman.