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Privacy Versus the Right to Know

The Montana Constitution guarantees citizens both a right to know and a right to privacy. When it comes to public records, these guarantees sometimes seem to conflict.

Article 2, Section 9 of the state constitution states: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents. of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.” State law further gives citizens the right to inspect and copy public records.

Article 2, Section 10 of the constitution states: “The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.

So which is more important? The right to privacy or the right to know?

Sometimes you can provide a citizen with information he or she seeks without allowing him or her to look at confidential portions of records. You can do this by reading a record yourself and giving the person information verbally or by photocopying the record and blocking out confidential portions.

In an attempt to balance these two rights, Montana courts have created a body of case law that may provide some guidance. If you are unsure whether a document is confidential or accessible to the public, consult your attorney.