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NEFAC applauds NH judge’s decision to grant newspaper access to fire victim’s name

A New Hampshire judge ruled last week that Union Leader Corp., publisher of the Granite State’s largest daily newspaper, should be given the name of a man suspected of starting a fire while smoking in a Laconia apartment complex. The city of Laconia argued that federal and state privacy laws precluded such disclosure.

“In conducting such a balancing test in this case, the court has no difficulty finding that there is a legitimate public interest that trumps the individual’s right to privacy,” wrote Judge Kenneth R. McHugh in his opinion. ”An individual smoking a cigarette while using an oxygen tank in a facility wherein other people reside raises general safety issues and therefore is of public interest.”

Especially notable in the case was McHugh’s ruling that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPPA, did not prevent the city from releasing the victim’s name.

Though the city has 30 days to appeal the ruling, attorney Gregory V. Sullivan said he is “very pleased with the ruling.”

“There has been much confusion at the local level regarding HIPPA and its privacy requirements,” said Sullivan, who is a NEFAC board member and who represented the Union Leader. “We believe the court made the right call with respect to the facts and records of this case.”

Added Rose Cavanagh, executive director of NEFAC: “It’s an excellent ruling and one that we welcome. As an advocate of open government and the freedom to information, NEFAC applauds the decision.”

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