In Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc. v. State, a sharply divided Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, held that release of records relating to Attorney General G. Steven Rowe's investigation of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests was warranted under Maine's Freedom of Access Act (FOAA). Although such investigative records are designated confidential by statute, the majority held that the public's interest in the contents of the records mandated their disclosure after all information identifying persons other than the deceased priests had been redacted. The concurrence asserted that the majority had reached the correct conclusion, but in so doing had unnecessarily expanded the underlying purpose of the FOAA. The two dissents both found, however, that release of the records was not warranted in this case, both because it compromised the personal privacy interests of the victims, deceased priests, and their families, and because there was no public interest falling within the purpose of the FOAA compelling disclosure; The dissents also found fault with the redaction standard adopted by the majority. This case required the Law Court to interpret for the first time the personal privacy exemption of the FOAA relating to investigative records. In so doing, the Law Court was confronted with unique legal, political, and cultural issues relating to crimes of sexual abuse in the context of a priest abuse scandal. The Law Court determined that the public had a right to view the records, once the identifying information of the victims and witnesses named in the reports had been redacted, as a way of understanding the Attorney General's response to the numerous reports of sexual abuse by Maine priests. The question now becomes: did the Law Court craft a holding that would adequately protect the privacy interests of victims and alleged perpetrators of crimes while also preserving the public's right to access government records? Through an analysis of the landmark federal cases interpreting this personal privacy exemption, this Note explains the difficult and conflicting interests implicated by this exemption, and the divergent views of courts in the application of these precedents. This Note shows how the conflicting interests of private individuals and the general public came into play in the Blethen decision, and how the Law Court balanced these interests in reaching its decision to release the records. After examining the conclusions reached by the various opinions in the case, this Note concludes that the Law Court reached the right decision in releasing the records and declining to adopt a more rigorous test for public interest. However, the court failed to craft a redaction standard that would adequately ensure, in future cases, that any personal privacy interests of those named in such records would be protected from unwarranted public disclosure.
Kenleigh A. Nicoletta,
Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc. v. State: Balancing the Public's Right to Know Against the Privacy Rights of Victims of Sexual Abuse,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol59/iss1/11