The Iowa Department of Public Health is ending its efforts to stop newspapers from publishing information contained in vital records — birth certificates, death certificates, divorce decrees and marriage licenses — that are filed with Iowa’s county recorders.
The unprecedented attempt by a state agency began in June when a health department official notified county recorders that none of the vital records could be “published”. The official cited as the basis for her directive administrative rules that were enacted in 2012.
Several newspapers reported being pressured to stop publishing lists of such records. In a few counties, recorders threatened to report the newspapers to the local county attorney for prosecution if they continued ignoring the health department’s directive.
After learning of the health department’s efforts, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Iowa Newspaper Association lawyers began working to end the department’s misguided interpretation of Iowa law. The Iowa FOI Council wrote in support of a complaint filed with the Iowa Public Information Board and then wrote directly to the health department.
On Oct. 26, Gerd Clabaugh, the director of the Department of Public Health, notified the Iowa FOI Council and INA that state officials would fully comply with the open records law. Clabaugh said his staff, in consultation with the Iowa attorney general’s staff, has revised the administrative rules in response to concerns raised by the INA and Iowa FOI Council.
In his letter, Clabaugh said the department will notify Iowa’s county recorders that the intent of the administrative rules was not to prevent the publication of vital records information by local newspapers or other entities. Clabaugh said the department will tell county recorders that they should not advise newspapers that they are restricted from publishing such information.
In objecting to the prohibition on publication of vital records, the Iowa FOI Council and INA said the Department of Public Health has no statutory authority to issue such administrative rules.
Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said in his letter to Clabaugh that the public health department was ignoring Iowa’s open record law, which clearly and unambiguously states, “Every person shall have the right to examine and copy a public record and to publish or otherwise disseminate a public record or the information contained in a public record. … The right to copy a public record shall include the right to make photographs or photographic copies while the public record is in the possession of the custodian of the record.”
The revised administrative rules provided to the Iowa FOI Council and INA remove the old rule’s prohibition on the use of scanners, cell phones or tablet computers to make images or copies from county vital records. The new rules also remove the prohibition on posting vital records information on web sites.
The new rules allow county recorders to produce lists of vital records, as many recorders customarily have done for their local newspapers.
Any interested person may submit comments on the revised rules until Dec. 13. Comments should be mailed to Melissa Bird, Iowa Department of Public Health, 321 E. 12th St., Des Moines, IA 50319. Comments can be sent by email to Melissa.Bird@idph.iowa.gov.