It's just exhausting. Relentless. Like trying to keep a wave from the shore. 

Every day, it seems, some public body somewhere is redacting names from records or withholding entire records because someone is named.

Just stop it!


This is the discretionary personnel information exemption. It exempts "information concerning identifiable individuals," and all sane people have long since understood that that doesn't mean a person's name. Salary information and reimbursements, for instance, mentioned in this same section, must be released by name. So, if I go in and ask for Megan Rhyne's whateverdy-what, I know that whatever I get is Megan Rhyne's.

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that the definition of personnel information included information that was "data, facts, or statements within a public record relating to a specific government employee, which are in the possession of the entity solely because of the individual's employment relationship and are private, but for the individual's employment with the entity." A person's name is not in the public body's possession solely because they're employed there, nor is a name private "but for" employment. Further, what the court said is "private" is that which -- if disclosed -- would constitute "an 'unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' to a reasonable person under the circumstances."

Hanging your hat on "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," maybe, because people fear they'll be harassed? Nope. That's speculative. It's also illogical considering employee names must be released with salary and reimbursement data, and they go on websites, reports, conference badges, email signature lines, you name it. (see what I did there?) 

There is no such thing as an anonymous employee. If there were, there would have been no need for a now-retiring senator to have proposed a bill in 2016 to make law enforcement officers' names secret. The bill narrowly passed the Senate but died in a House subcommittee, but the point is that the bill wouldn't have been "needed" if names were already somehow exempt as personnel records.


This discretionary exemption was created in the early 2000s when email newsletters were becoming a thing. The notion was that citizens should be able to sign up to get news from their local governments -- Christmas tree collection is Friday! Water pressure will be low while we fix a water main! -- without giving up their name and contact information to a public database that could be requested and exploited. Yet, as recently as, um, yesterday, I see this exemption used to redact names and email addresses from the ordinary correspondence between citizens and individual government employees.

The exemption's been tweaked a few times over the years, and two years ago it had a major change from being an opt-out of disclosure to being an opt-in, but the basic application remained the same: it's for email sign-ups.

The FOIA Council has affirmed this, and when the council studied the section prior to the 2021 change, discussions affirmed this point, too. That is, the council rejected a draft that would have expanded the exemption (see pages 4 and 12 of the linked report) to cover names in any email back and forth. There's also been a court case affirming the distinction


This discretionary exemption protects security controls for the state's financial processes and systems. Again. Makes sense. You don't want to give hackers the keys to disrupt the tracking of money into and out of Commonwealth coffers. It is not, however, a reason to redact the name of an employee off of that employee's credit card statement.

VCOG is seeking legislation again this year (last year’s effort passed the Senate unanimously but was killed by a House subcommittee) to counter the state comptroller's advice since 2020 (based on faulty advice from Bank of America) that state agencies redact all names. See above: it is illogical because if I ask for Megan Rhyne's credit card statement, they have to give me Megan Rhyne's credit card statement and I know that it's Megan Rhyne. See above again: the Finance Department couldn't find anyone to carry a bill in 2020 to exempt names under this section; if the exemption included names, there'd be no need to contrive legislation.


This discretionary exemption says that the identity of an undercover officer can be withheld. We all understand why: you don't want to release a report that shows the real name of an officer who is (or has been) working undercover to gather evidence against potential criminal targets. It is not a reason to withhold the name -- without any tying to the job that officer is doing -- when officer salaries are requested.

The salary-by-name requirement is mandatory, the undercover officer's name exemption is discretionary. And using the exemption to prevent the disclosure of an officer's name simply because that officer may one day become undercover doesn't cut it either. Yet, that's what Chesterfield County baited and a judge swallowed, even after staff admitted that "undercover" officers wear badges or otherwise identify as officers, versus "covert" officers who are the ones in disguise. 

Look, the General Assembly is perfectly capable of making an exemption for names or identities when it wants. And most people on both sides of the request counter understand this. But more and more often, some shiny new FOIA officer or government attorney thinks they've found a clever workaround. They make it harder and harder and harder. Harder for people to get records. Harder to push back. And harder for me NOT TO USE ALL-CAPS!!!

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