NEFAC: Release Mass. Public Records in Aggregate Form; ‘Big Data’ Can Be Beneficial

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 |


The New England First Amendment Coalition recently demanded the release of Massachusetts birth and marriage records in aggregate form, addressing unwarranted concerns of privacy and touting the benefits ‘big data’ can provide.

“The public benefit in releasing the records is considerable,” NEFAC and other open government advocates argued in a Dec. 21 amicus brief.

“This dataset can be used to facilitate government accountability, gain new insights into systemic questions about the welfare of Massachusetts citizens, and inform localized news reporting by news outlets of all sizes,” they wrote.

The brief — drafted by the BU/MIT Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic — was filed in Boston Globe Media Partners v. Dept. of Public Health. The case involves a public records request made by The Boston Globe for Massachusetts birth and marriage records. Although these records are public information, the state’s Department of Public Health would not release them in aggregate form as it does for death records.

The Globe appealed to the state’s Supervisor of Records, who twice stated that the records should be released, before reversing that position after the department requested reconsideration.

“Beyond questions of policy and law enforcement, datasets like the records can be used by both journalists and researchers to develop a better understanding of societal issues and population trends in Massachusetts,” explained amici. “Using these records, journalists and researchers can look broadly at state-wide trends such as average lifespans, while also having the ability to narrow the scope of reporting to county-by-county trends.”

“The same can be said for marriage records, as this collection of records can tell reporters and researchers more about localized trends in marriages,” amici added.

NEFAC regularly files and joins amicus briefs in cases involving the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. The coalition recently argued for timely access to juror identities, immediate access to civil court documents, the right to private emails of government officials when they pertain to public business, the freedom to record public police activity and the preservation of anti-SLAPP laws.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.