Massachusetts Gov. Baker Wants to Limit Vital Record Access

A proposal from Gov. Charlie Baker would change public disclosure rules. Unless the records belong to an individual, their family or a state or municipal clerk, anyone seeking them would need a court order.

by Christian M. Wade, The Eagle-Tribune / January 31, 2020
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(TNS) — Gov. Charlie Baker wants to restrict access to birth certificates and other vital records as part of his budget for next fiscal year, arguing the move would put the state in line with national standards that shield the information from public disclosure.

Baker, a Republican, filed his preliminary $44.6 billion budget for fiscal 2021 on Wednesday. The Legislature still must approve the plan, which would take effect July 1.

An outside section of Baker’s budget would block public access to birth and marriage certificates for 90 years from their filing and death certificates for 50 years.

Unless the records belong to an individual, their family or a state or municipal clerk, anyone seeking them would need a court order.

In his proposal, Baker writes that the changes "align with national best practices for the protection of personally identifiable data and confidential health information."

Open government groups say they are unnecessary.

"I honesty don't understand it," said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. "I wasn't aware that we had a problem with people pirating vital records for nefarious purposes, which seems to be the implication here."

Ambrogi said shutting off access to the records will negatively impact news gathering and the work of genealogical groups that depend on vital records to trace family histories.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, called the governor's proposal "excessive."

"Sealing off these records for such a long period of time doesn't seem to be in the public's interest," he said. "Access to these records is important, and the state shouldn't be restricting it."

Access to certain records, such as the birth certificates of children born to unmarried parents, is already restricted under an old state law.

A Baker spokeswoman defended the governor's proposal as a privacy protection that will prevent identity theft and other fraudulent use of vital records.

"This proposal aligns the commonwealth with national standards and those of other states and further protects sensitive information from identity theft and fraud, but does not prohibit access of public information," Sarah Finlaw, his press secretary, said in a statement.

The Baker administration points out that indices of vital records, such as a list of recorded deaths, would still be available under the governor's proposal.

©2020 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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