Another newspaper told to stop printing vital records

Another Iowa newspaper was informed last week that it must stop publishing lists of marriage licenses issued in that county.

At least a half dozen newspapers across the state have been told that their long-standing practice of printing lists of people who obtain marriage licenses has to end because of administrative rules written by the Iowa Department of Public Health, which is Iowa’s central repository of vital records.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Iowa Newspaper Association are working with officials in Gov. Terry Branstad’s and Attorney General Tom Miller’s offices and with administrators in the Department of Public Health to correct the administrative rules that deal with marriage licenses, divorce decrees, death certificates and birth certificates.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, last week wrote to Gerd Clabaugh, director of the Department of Public Health, and said the council and its legal advisers believe the vital records rules violate Iowa’s public records law.

Administrative rules are intended to implement laws in Iowa. Such rules cannot contradict a law.

But that’s what has occurred with the vital records rules. Several newspapers have been told to stop printing lists of vital records. One newspaper has been threatened that it will be referred to the local county attorney for prosecution if it continues to print such lists.

Evans said in his letter to Clabaugh, “The Iowa FOI Council believes the Department of Public Health has no legal authority under Chapter 22 or Chapter 144 of the Iowa Code to prohibit publication of information that is contained in a public record. Section 22.2(1) 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.’ ”

Evans said section 144.43(2)(b), a companion statute pertaining to vital records, states: “… the following vital statistics records may be inspected and copied as a right under chapter 22 when they are in the custody of a county registrar or when they are in the custody of the state archivist and are at least seventy-five years old: (1)  A record of birth. (2)  A record of marriage. (3)  A record of divorce, dissolution of marriage, or annulment of marriage. (4) A record of death if that death was not a fetal death.”

Evans said only the Iowa Legislature, not rule-writers inside state agencies, can change the requirements contained in the public records law.

Listings of vital records have for made decades been a news-of-record  staple in many Iowa newspapers. Those lists of births, deaths, marriages and divorces are an important part of a community, Evans said. The listings document major events in people’s lives and inform the public of the milestone occurrences involving their friends and neighbors.

Iowa’s county recorders receive and file these vital records and then forward copies of the documents to the Department of Public Health. But on June 28, Melissa Bird, chief of the Bureau of Health Statistics at the Iowa Department of Public Health, informed county recorders, “You need to immediately stop providing lists of vital records for any purpose. Public can have access to vital records via the public terminals. The information inspected and copied shall not be published.”

Polly Carver-Kimm, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, recently told The Des Moines Register that the rules pertaining to vital records will be amended in light of the issues raised by the media and county attorneys.

Citing Carver-Kimm’s comments, Evans told Clabaugh, “It is illogical, therefore, for Iowa’s county recorders to continue enforcing the flawed administrative rules against Iowa’s newspapers, as ordered by Ms. Bird, while your staff works on revising the rules.”

Evans asked Clabaugh to notify the 99 county recorders of the impending rule changes so the county officials do not try to enforce rules that his staff now understands are not enforceable.

Evans asked Iowa newspapers to notify him if they are told by their county recorders they can no longer publish marriage licenses, divorce decrees, or certificates of births or deaths.

Evans can be reached at (515) 745-0041 or

The Iowa FOI Council was organized 40 years ago this month by Iowa publishers, broadcasters, media organizations, educators, lawyers and business leaders as a statewide voice in support of state and local government being open and accessible to the people of Iowa. The Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Broadcasters Association were among the founders of the council.

A copy of Evans’ letter to the Department of Public Health appears here. idph-2016