Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Lis Wiehl falsely claimed that the ACLU has not raised privacy objections to the search by Ohio government officials of “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher's records, with O'Reilly saying the organization's response has been “nothing.” In fact, ACLU of Ohio executive director Christine Link wrote in a letter that she “was deeply disturbed to hear that state officials approved the use of government databases to obtain information” Wurzelbacher, and the legal director for the ACLU of Ohio told Media Matters, “We would be very happy to talk to him and see if there's something we could do to pursue redress for this violation of his privacy rights.”
On the November 6 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly, Fox News America's Newsroom host Megyn Kelly, and legal analyst Lis Wiehl falsely claimed that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hasn't criticized the search by Ohio government officials of “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher's records, with O'Reilly saying the organization's response has been “nothing -- no ACLU. We haven't seen any of them.” In fact, as the News Hounds website noted in response to O'Reilly's comments, Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, the state affiliate of the national organization, posted an October 31 letter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer's online forum, stating that she “was deeply disturbed to hear that state officials approved the use of government databases to obtain information about Joseph Wurzelbacher. ... It is appalling that government officials believe they may access a person's private information simply for being in a newspaper headline.”
Discussing the accessing of Wurzelbacher's private records, O'Reilly asked: “Now, where's the ACLU in this? Aren't they the privacy people?” Wiehl replied: “They're busy.” Kelly stated: “I'll tell you where they are. They are out in California on behalf of the gay marriage advocates. They're busy.” O'Reilly later added: “Can you imagine if a Republican did this to a Democrat? It's unbelievable. But nothing -- no ACLU. We haven't seen any of them.” Wiehl responded: “No, no, they're all in California doing the whole gay marriage thing.”
Additionally, during the October 31 edition of the Factor, O'Reilly read a viewer email that said of the Wurzelbacher matter: “Where is the ACLU on this violation of privacy? Or is it just terrorist privacy they want to protect?” Immediately after reading the email, O'Reilly stated: “Probably that.”
In her October 31 letter -- titled, “Government snoops have no right to pry into newsmakers' personal information” -- Link wrote:
I was deeply disturbed to hear that state officials approved the use of government databases to obtain information about Joseph Wurzelbacher, also known as “Joe the Plumber.” Rather than using state databases for their intended purpose, it seems some officials believe they can breach private information simply to satisfy their curiosity about someone in the public eye.
The most chilling aspect of this situation came from the explanation by Job & Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley stating that her office regularly conducts searches on peoples' personal information if they appear in high-profile news stories. Jones-Kelley had no evidence that Wurzelbacher owed any back child support, yet she still initiated the search. This is not only unethical, but a dangerous violation of our privacy.
It is appalling that government officials believe they may access a person's private information simply for being in a newspaper headline. This unethical practice only confirms that our state government does not have adequate checks in place to protect our privacy, leaving our most personal information vulnerable to the whims of a person's curiosity. Many people also could be frightened from speaking to members of the media or expressing their views because they could come under scrutiny of our state government.
This problem is crying out for immediate action by our top state leaders. All departments should have ethical procedures for accessing Ohioans' personal information, safeguards against people wrongfully accessing private data and clear consequences for violating these rules. In an age where so much information is available electronically at the touch of our fingertips, our leaders must create better safeguards against unfair breaches of our privacy.
Further, ACLU of Ohio legal director Jeff Gamso told Media Matters for America, regarding Wurzelbacher: “We would be very happy to talk to him and see if there's something we could do to pursue redress for this violation of his privacy rights. We are deeply angered at the abuse of government databases, whether for political purposes, or for morbid curiosity or gossip. It's an altogether unacceptable use of private information.”
I wondered if the incidents raised civil liberties questions about whether Joe had been treated fairly. (I'm not a fan of Joe's insights, but it rather looks as if Democratic officials were trying to dig up dirt to make him look bad, as this PD editorial notes.) So I called the state American Civil Liberties Union, and the group's executive director, Christine Link, kindly called me back.
I asked her about news accounts about how the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services' director, Helen Jones-Kelley, had authorized a database search to see if Joe owed child support.
Link said the ACLU generally favors releasing as much government information, but said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services needs to follow a written policy to make sure everyone is treated the same.
She noted a key sentence in this news story: “Dennis Evans, a spokesman for the family services agency, acknowledged there is no written policy on checking people thrown into the public spotlight.”
“This is not good,” Link said. “Now it does raise these issues, why are they picking on this fellow?”
As News Hounds noted, the ACLU of Ohio's website has also posted links to several articles expressing privacy concerns regarding state officials' accessing of Wurzelbacher's records.
As Media Matters has documented, O'Reilly has previously branded the ACLU a "terrorist group" and "a fascist organization," and claimed that “the ACLU and the judges who side with them are terror allies.” He has also said that “Hitler would be a card-carrying ACLU member. So would Stalin.”
From the November 6 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
KELLY: But listen, everyone in the left was -- wanted dirt on Joe the Plumber when he first came out on the national scene.
KELLY: All the left blogs were trying to find out about his tax liens and so on.
KELLY: I think she [Ohio Department of Job and Family Services director Helen E. Jones-Kelley] may have just been a lefty.
WIEHL: Really? Shocked -- I'm shocked.
O'REILLY: Probably --
WIEHL: Somebody not like you?
WIEHL: Absolutely not. And I disagree with Megyn in the sense I do think there is potentially something illegal here. I looked at the Ohio legislative statutes. And employees are strictly liable for misuse of political funds. And I would say, look, her taking the time or ordering somebody else to take the time to look into this, that's misuse of public funds. It takes time and money to do that.
WIEHL: Absolutely. Absolutely.
WIEHL: The reason she justified it, she said, “Well, you know, when people come into the political eye, like a lottery winner, then we're going to look at them.” Well, a lottery winner is a lot different from somebody who barely is --
WIEHL: They have -- they have launched an investigation on her.
WIEHL: On her -- not of -- on her of the investigation --
WIEHL: Exactly. An investigation -- that all they've said today is it's ongoing.
WIEHL: Well, but they have to do it.
KELLY: It's not a mystery.
O'REILLY: And I'm not saying that Democrats are corrupt. I'm just saying that, you know, in a state like Ohio -- or in any state -- there's a lot of cronyism. Now, where's the ACLU in this? Aren't they the privacy people?
WIEHL: They're busy.
KELLY: This is a shocker, isn't it?
KELLY: I'll tell you where they are. They are out in California on behalf of the gay marriage advocates.
KELLY: They're busy.
O'REILLY: -- they couldn't help Joe the Plumber.
KELLY: It's so ridiculous.
O'REILLY: Don't they have restrooms there on the premises? Don't they like plumbers?
WIEHL: But they're too busy.
O'REILLY: Can you imagine if a Republican did this to a Democrat? It's unbelievable.
KELLY: The outrage would be --
WIEHL: No, no, they're all in California doing the whole gay marriage thing.
WIEHL: You know, it takes a lot to file all these lawsuits in California.
O'REILLY: -- helping Joe the Plumber.
WIEHL: No, even though there is a huge privacy issue.
KELLY: I'm sure they'll step in and help [O'Reilly Factor producer] Jesse [Watters] if he gets sued, too.
From the October 31 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
O'REILLY: Lots of reaction to Ohio authorities investigating Joe the Plumber.
Matt Buckner, Lyndora, Pennsylvania: “O'Reilly, you are right. Governor Strickland wants to attack Joe. I want to join you in protecting our citizens.”
If anything happens to Joe the Plumber, you will know immediately, sir.
Sara Wagner, Columbus, Ohio: “I am appalled by Democrats investigating Joe. Running a background check on him is ridiculous.”
David Jozsef, Toronto, Canada: “Where is the ACLU on this violation of privacy? Or is it just terrorist privacy they want to protect?”