Only select people would be able to view and copy birth, death, and marriage documents under a proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker that seeks to put a tight grip on public access to the records.
That is, unless someone is willing to wait a couple of decades.
Within the 2021 fiscal year budget, the Republican governor is seeking to restrict what’s currently within reach to anyone who wants to see or receive copies of the files at local city and town halls and through the state’s Registry of Vital Records and Statistics.
Baker’s change-up would impose restrictions to keep those documents under wraps to the general public.
A person requesting his or her own personal records would still be able to get them, as would that person’s parent or attorney, or another party through a judicial order, among other specific exceptions, according to the proposal.
As for anyone else though, birth and marriage records would only be available after 90 years since the birth or marriage, and, for death certificates, after 50 years from the date of death.
Right now, viewing and copying vital records are available for a fee in Massachusetts, with certain exemptions.
The proposal is among 14 in total that Baker’s office says updates state regulations regarding what are known as “vital records” that would align Massachusetts “with national best practices for the protection of personally identifiable data and confidential health information.”
Specifically, those practices are outlined in recommendations from the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, which, according to its website, is a nonprofit representing state vital records offices.
Sarah Finlaw, a Baker administration spokesperson, told The Boston Globe the proposal “further protects sensitive information from identify theft and fraud, but does not prohibit access of public information.”
If approved, the measure would still allow access to other records — including the state’s death index — held at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, according to the newspaper.
But open-records advocates and attorneys told the Globe the proposal would usher in a “drastic” shift and could leave behind ramifications that impact the news media, genealogical research, and health studies that rely on those records.
“Common sense tells us that some of these records may be useful for academic research, for perhaps investigation in criminal cases, perhaps in investigations by the news media,” Jeffrey J. Pyle, a First Amendment law attorney at the Prince Lobel firm, told the newspaper.
Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Globe he’s certain the association will try to oppose the measure.
“If certain kinds of information are being taken from public records for nefarious ways, let’s address them as specifically as we can — instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said.
The Baker administration has not said if there was a specific catalyst for the switch, but the slate of proposals comes months after the Supreme Judicial Court told state agencies they should expand what they consider to be the “public interest” when handling public records requests.
The ruling came amid a case in which the Globe sought copies of millions of birth and marriage documents.
Baker staffers told the newspaper this week that the proposal — which would require approval from the Legislature — is unrelated to the court ruling in June.