By Madeline Coats
Washington Newspaper Publishers Association
A bipartisan group of 34 representatives seeks to protect information concerning agency employees who have filed a claim of harassment or stalking.
House Bill 1692 was introduced by Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) after she said one of her constituents was repeatedly harassed at her job. Jinkins ultimately wants to ensure that a harasser cannot continue to harass.
“The bill is intended to cut off harassment once an agency has done an investigation and taken action,” Jinkins said at a public hearing.
The proposal would exempt certain records of claims by employees from public disclosure. This act is necessary for the immediate protection of the public space, and health and safety of agency workers, the bill states.
Media attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard says the legislation would protect state agencies from embarrassment, rather than the victims. The bill is a way around the Public Records Act, she contends.
According to the measure, an agency may not disclose such records unless ordered by a court and upon consideration of the employee’s right to privacy under state law RCW 42.56.050.
As specified in the RCW, a person’s right to privacy is invaded or violated only if disclosure of information would be seen as highly offensive to a reasonable person, and not of legitimate concern to the public.
HB 1692 indicates that it is highly offensive to a reasonable person to disclose records to the person of the alleged harassment or stalking of an agency employee.
Seamus Petrie, lobbyist for the Washington Public Employee Association, hopes to eliminate bystander culture and provide strong protections for those people in order to come forward.
“We know that sexual harassment goes under-reported,” he said. “We know that a significant list of those reasons why it goes under-reported is fear of retaliation.”
The bill states a goal to protect the health and safety of state employees, but even more so when they become victims of harassment or stalking. The state has an interest in protecting against the inappropriate use of public resources to carry out actions of harassment or stalking, according to HB 1692.
Earl-Hubbard believes HB 1692 is an attempt to keep sexual harassment allegations secret. She is part of the Allied Law Group, which represented Washington state news organizations, including The Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Seattle Times, in last year’s lawsuit against the Legislature regarding an attempt to shield legislators from the Public Records Act.
Dennis Eagle testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Washington Federation of State Employees.
“We do support very strongly the need for transparency, but that need has to be balanced with the need to protect the personal safety of people who do tough jobs on the public’s behalf,” he said.