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Court Rules on Smithsonian’s Status

June 8, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today let stand a ruling that says the Smithsonian Institution, which operates the government’s museums in the nation’s capital, is not a federal agency and therefore need not comply with a privacy-protecting law.

The justices, without comment, rejected an appeal by a Smithsonian employee who says her privacy rights were violated in a disciplinary matter.

Margaret Dong, a federal employee who works at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, sued the Smithsonian in 1994. She accused museum officials of violating her rights during an investigation of alleged misconduct.

As part of her job, Dong serves as a courier when works of art are sent to other museums. Employees are supposed to get permission before performing such duties.

Museum officials said Dong failed to get such permission in September 1993 before she served as a courier for a painting being shipped to a New York City museum.

When her supervisors learned of the trip, they called museum officials in New York without first discussing the matter with Dong. After Dong’s supervisors confronted her, she admitted taking the trip and received a five-day suspension.

She sued the Smithsonian under the federal Privacy Act. Under the law, federal agencies cannot gather information about someone that might lead to negative consequences without trying to get the information directly from that person ``to the greatest extent practicable.″

A federal judge ruled that the Smithsonian violated the privacy law. But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed, saying the Smithsonian is not a federal agency because it does not exercise independent authority by making rules or determining people’s rights.

In the appeal acted on today, Dong’s lawyers said the federal government has daily supervisory control over the Smithsonian. They said the lower court’s ruling also could mean the Smithsonian is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

Justice Department lawyers urged the justices to reject Dong’s appeal, contending that the Smithsonian is a cultural institution that does not carry out regulatory functions performed by federal agencies.

The case is Dong vs. Smithsonian Institution, 97-1435.

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