I was alerted to this issue by a commenter on the Find-A-Grave California Discussion Forum.
If you go in person to the main office of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder in Norwalk, California, and ask to view their birth, death, or marriage records, you will be required to sign a form similar to the one below (the example is for birth records, but the ones for death and marriage records contain the exact same provisions)
(click image to enlarge)
Frankly, I don’t understand most of what’s here in the section after “Please read and sign the following”.
The first item is somewhat clear, but I wonder why L.A. County wants researchers to sign it? What effect, other than a potentially chilling one, would this have on a researcher’s ability to characterize, analyze, or describe data contained in the records?
The second item is extremely confusing. What is meant by “any technical descriptions of the birth or death record indices”? What are the descriptions provided by the State Department of Health Services and how would a researcher know if they are “consistent” with whatever?
I might understand that item #3 is designed to discourage commercial use of the information (a common, but dubious governmental objective). What, however, is meant by the phrase “otherwise transfer”? Does that mean if I have received certain information from L.A. County’s records, I can’t tell you what it is?
Item #4 is the only one that makes any sense.
The most objectionable requirement is the fifth one, that the researcher “not post information from the [records] on the Internet.” There is no statutory basis for this requirement that I could find in California law. Furthermore, even if
there is a statute permitting the county to impose this requirement, it’s likely unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and free press. It serves no compelling governmental interest sufficient to overcome an individual’s constitutional rights. And how would the county enforce it? Could they get an injunction blocking proposed publication on the Internet? Or a court order requiring a researcher to remove the information from the Internet? Not likely.
Note that a researcher could broadcast the information on television or radio, or post it on a billboard in downtown Los Angeles, or publish it on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, or even email it to a million people. You just can’t post it on the Internet!
What makes this form all the more amazing is that persons ordering records by mail are not required to sign any such similar form! At this link is the document needed to order records by mail from Los Angeles County.
To use the words we lawyers love to use, the Los Angeles County form contains provisions which are vague and overbroad, arbitrary and capricious, and an unlawful infringement on the right to free expression under the U.S. and
California Constitutions. I would not sign such a form.
For this bit of foolishness, Los Angeles County and its Registrar-Recorder, Dean C. Logan, have earned a place in the Public Records Hall of Shame. Let’s hope they redeem themselves soon!
May 2, 2009 Saturday at 2:01 pm