The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this week that personal e-mails sent from teachers’ work computers are exempt from state open records laws.
I know many government employees who do not send any personal e-mails on work computers, fearful that the public could have a right to those e-mails. This ruling would appear to protect such e-mails in Wisconsin.
According to the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune:
By a 5-2 vote, the court said the Wisconsin Rapids School District is not required by law to release personal e-mails from the work stations of five teachers from March 1, 2007 to April 13, 2007.
In her majority ruling, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote that opening the public’s eyes to private electronic messages would have a negative impact on the state employees.
“Stripping a public employee of his or her privacy in the contents of personal e-mails simply because he or she works for the government might hamper productivity, negatively impact employee morale, and undermine recruiting and retention of government employees,” Abrahamson wrote.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represented and supported the local teachers, was pleased with the court’s decision, said spokeswoman Christina Brey.
“It doesn’t benefit public interest that any public employee’s miscellaneous personal e-mails that have nothing to do with government be released,” Brey said. “We are speaking for just so many teachers and education support professionals, and this goes on to affect other public employees.”
Friday’s ruling sets a concerning precedent, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
“I’m troubled in this case, the public records law, was interpreted as a secrecy mandate,” Lueders said. “It will make it a little bit harder to hold public employees accountable, and create new opportunities for abuse the way court rulings that favor secrecy always do.”
Bob Burns, who represents the school district, said the court’s ruling was not a clear-cut unification on the issue.
“The easiest way to look at it is you start with the two dissenters who say (the e-mails) are records and should be released,” Burns said. “Then you have two (justices) who say they are records, but don’t release, and then you have three who say they are not records.
“The fact that you had the justices getting to their results here in several different ways, I think reflects that there was no clear answer going into this.”