Q: I violently object to magazines and newspapers publishing the listing of house purchases, the way that payments are made and the name of the buyer and seller. In my opinion, these are all highly confidential. I have a privately listed telephone number and should have the same right of privacy when it comes to the purchase or sale of my house. Shouldn't the magazines and newspapers ask for the new owner's permission before disclosing his or her real estate transaction?
A: A few years ago, a trade association tried to get the names, addresses and other vital information of all airline pilots listed with a federal government agency. When the agency turned down the request, the trade association asked the chairman of the House of Representatives committee with jurisdiction over freedom of information issues for assistance. At the same time, however, the government asked the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee handling privacy issues for similar help. The two members of Congress worked out a compromise on the delicate issue of information versus privacy, and the pilots' names and addresses--but not other vital information--were released.
You have raised, perhaps, one of the most significant issues affecting society--not only real estate matters. There is a very delicate balance between the need of the public to have access to government information and the individual's right to privacy.
My own view is that the newspapers and magazines have the absolute right to publish information that is in the public domain.
As you may know, when you buy or sell a house, the deed is publicly recorded among the land records in the jurisdiction where the property is located. To protect the buyer, the seller, lenders and all others who may have an interest in the transaction, the deed becomes a public document. When a lender puts a deed of trust (mortgage) on the property, it too is recorded in a public place.
There is reason for having these documents publicly available, so as to put all others on notice of the recordation. You certainly would not want the seller of your house to give a deed to four or five other people after you have paid your money and received your own deed.
Generally, once a document has been recorded, it is notice to the world of the facts in the public record.
Since these documents are, in fact, public, anyone--including your nosy neighbor--has the right to go to the Recorder of Deeds office and review the files. In fact, photocopy machines are generally available in all of the Records of Deeds office, and instant copies can be purchased--usually for a nominal fee.
If this information thus is available publicly, why should the newspaper or magazine be precluded from printing this information. If government information is available, it should be available to all persons, without discrimination. If, on the other hand, documents are to be classified--for various reasons, including privacy--then no one should have access to those documents without demonstrating a particular need.
As a believer in the First Amendment and as a strong advocate for the availability of government information--and its widespread distribution through the media, I do not agree that these real estate listings should be available only with the permission of the owner.
Public records should be accessible to everyone.