Wisconsin Supreme Court: Personal e-mails sent on school system computers are private. Blow to open records or boost to online privacy?

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.”

53 comments Add your comment

Did the investigators investigate?

July 18th, 2010
12:14 am

Did the investigators investigating the cheating scandal ask to see all emails from workstations, or just emails from the school system’s employee’s official email address?

When the AJC does Open Records requests, does it limit itself to official email addresses, or to computer station emails?

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bootney farnsworth

July 18th, 2010
12:27 am

I like the ruling. pity it was necessary.

when at work, the school has every right to see anything I send
work related. assuming I don’t correspond with forbidden sites
(porn, political activitism, ect) the few emails I send ranging
from health to banking should remain my business.

I can certainly see the merit of the school saying personal
correspondence be limited to a set number or time period.

simple fact is, we spend more time at work than ever. the once solid
line between work and home is nearly gone. if you want me to go
beyond the traditional 4o, you gotta let go of the rope a bit.

bootney farnsworth

July 18th, 2010
12:28 am

I stil won’t put anything on email I’m not (reluctantly) willing for
the whole world to see.

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HS Teacher

July 18th, 2010
1:18 am

If there is a teacher foolish enough to write anything (email, etc.) “bad” on a school computer, then they don’t have enough sense to teach. Every educated person should know by now that communicating on computers, the internet, and company servers are not like whispering in someone’s ear.

Be smart, people.

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July 18th, 2010
8:06 am

This gives the teachers an opportunity to do illegal, immoral acts and not lose their pensions..


July 18th, 2010
8:31 am

I would guess that in Wisconsin at least, this would apply to all state, county, and city employees, and not just teachers, correct?


July 18th, 2010
8:32 am

Bill, have you ever made a personal call from your work phone, or sent a personal email on your work computer (even as simple as “Honey if you go to the store please don’t forget bread”?)

Were your personal calls or emails illegal or immoral?

We had a Norwegian Principal

July 18th, 2010
8:39 am

Stockbridge told you — Barnes and Handel in the Fall Election. Barnes noses out Handel for his second reign. Humble Roy Barnes.


July 18th, 2010
8:43 am

With emails, there is an expectation of privacy, and an invasion of this privacy constitutes a tort. That wasn’t me making those political predictions. That was “BABY SAY.” Now this personality is genius. He was originally in Catlady’s family was but surreptitiously kidnapped.


July 18th, 2010
8:45 am

When the filter starts messing with me, then I quit blogging.


July 18th, 2010
8:47 am

The filter got me a few minutes ago. What is with this filter. Is WordPress that bad? Maureen, are you still iln Upstate Georgia?

Larry Major

July 18th, 2010
8:55 am

It appears – and I could be wrong since I can’t find the court’s full opinion – the problem is the school’s policy regarding personal use. Any government agency which allows any personal use of their computers should specifically exclude personal use of work-issued email accounts.

If the school restricted employees to using their school computer’s browser to access their personal email accounts, school records would show how often the employee accessed an external email server, but not the actual content of any personal email. These access records are sufficient to determine abuse of “limited” personal use policies and can be used by law enforcement to investigate illegal activities.

Although the plaintiff in this case was on a fishing expedition, he had a valid point. Politicking is only one of many legitimate activities that become unlawful if you use taxpayer owned equipment to do them.

School systems should learn from this incident and update their policies to avoid their own bucket of legal worms.

Hey Teacher

July 18th, 2010
9:04 am

Good. I think it’s ridiculous that I have to be worried about using my gmail account at work to send my husband an e mail about what we’re having for dinner. We’ve always been told that only the school e mail account could be a matter of public record (although I do get lazy and send the “what are we having for dinner” ) e mails to my husband from my school account.


July 18th, 2010
9:29 am

I teach a Internet security and safety class and tell my students the best practice for any electronic communication is to never write anything that you would be embarrassed for your mom to read. No matter how many times you may delete something when you hit the send button it is out there forever.

Hank Williams Jr.

July 18th, 2010
9:57 am

obama fixing to gey in ALL yalls e-mails…Hide and watch………..

what counts as "private"

July 18th, 2010
10:05 am

So, what if some of those DeKalb employees were communicating with their contractors through “private” e-mail, would they be off limit? What counts as “private”?

With cell phones and other personal technologies so readily available, I think public employees should stop using any public resources for personal purposes.

What is a bit tricky is if you use your own laptop to connect to the Internet through the school network. I tend to agree with td that you should never write something that you don’t want to become public. After all, e-mails are not secure – as they go through different servers, anyone with enough knowledge (and too much time) can look at what we send. It is not like the good old regular letters that require someone to open the envelopes. e-mails are basically post-cards being sent electronically.

Ros Dalton

July 18th, 2010
11:54 am

To be realistic if the emails contain anything of interest that information will surely be ‘leaked’ anyway. It might not be legally useful, but it could still be career destroying. As several others have said, if you don’t want your mother or boss to read it don’t write it in an email (Or text, IM, etc.).

Didn't know

July 18th, 2010
12:44 pm

Maureen, did you know that jim d passed away?

Teachers should be OUTRAGED

July 18th, 2010
12:55 pm

Looks like “the Ox” showed his true colors when it comes to teachers, and worse, when it comes to understanding education issues.

“For the sake of our children, we must hold teachers that facilitate cheating accountable. At the same time”

Notice the Ox says teachers ONLY. Not administrators, TEACHERS, showing he has no real clue of what is happening in education, as the only people who have been sanctioned so far are ADMINISTRATORS.

Ox’s camp needs to print an immediate apology.

David S

July 18th, 2010
2:00 pm

Given that teachers have been known to send out emails in support of education bond initiatives or in favor of canidates that support more theft on behalf the government education monopoly, this is a blow to every taxpayer in the country. This kind of abuse of government resources needs to be uncovered and those who abuse their positions need to be held accountable.

That being said, the real solution, as always, is to end all government involvement in education. Restore education to the private sector where it belongs, and this issue goes away. Then it becomes regulated by the employment contract between the employee and the employer and the taxpayers are no longer on the hook.

With a situation of fully private, charity, and homeschools, all of society would benefit (except of course the non-productive class of folks).


July 18th, 2010
2:39 pm

@Didn’t know – I’m very sorry to hear the news about jim d. He always provided a good voice to the discussions held in this forum. I have missed his posts and wondered what had happened.

Georgia teachers please note – this is from Wisconsin and does not apply to Georgia. Until the open records law as it applies to school e-mails is challenged, we should remain wary of what we put in writing from our school-owned e-mail. Even if it is not subject to open records, it is still subject to employer review.

There was another case recently regarding e-mails about students in another state. In that case, the teachers and school personnel corresponded by e-mail about a student’s learning needs. The parent asked for all educational records of the student including electronic communications. The parent won. Most electronic documents are treated the same as written records. Phone conversations and personal conversations are still somewhat protected.


July 18th, 2010
3:49 pm

I still have not been released from the Filter. I guess Maureen is showing me who is the boss. Ha!

Ole Guy

July 18th, 2010
3:55 pm

The Wisconsin Court must be outta their minds. They just made available another means of communicating subversive information with complete freedom of privacy.

While it is completely understandable to PERIODICALLY use employer-supplied laptops, out of necessity of time constraint, for personal use, it is completely absurd to send the message that these devices are to be considered always available for unabashed personal use.

Agent of change?

July 18th, 2010
4:22 pm

Is this blog a real agent of change as far as making an real impact on improving the teaching and learning conditions in Georgia, or because it lacks the resolve to tackle the real issues that affect teaching and learning, just a few people going round and round in circles in the vain hope that one day the AJC will truly step up to the plate?


July 18th, 2010
4:41 pm

IF someone is using en email service that the public is paying for THAT COMMUNICATION IS NOT PRIVATE.So when the cop who sued over his email being read and it was found that he had a mistress should get his wife AND job back huh? Rediculous!!! Wisconsin—–the Looney Left in the Midwest.


July 18th, 2010
4:53 pm

Ms. Downey, I, too, am sorry to hear of the passing of jimd, if true. Is it possible to pass along an address to write his family? (OR is that too weird?) I didn’t always agree with him, but he was a great contributor. My condolences to his wife and children. (And I bet some of the GCSS are breathing a little easier). Raise h3ll up there, jim!

In our system, our use of school computers for personal email is blocked (as well as many other things). And we are not allowed to bring our computers from home and plug them in. I use my iphone email feature but figure it can be monitored as well.


July 18th, 2010
5:08 pm

I wondered why we had not heard from jimd in several months. My condolences to his family.

Ox needs to be gored

July 18th, 2010
5:19 pm

Why is Ox saying TEACHERS cheated and giving administrators a free pass? Does he think he’s getting the teacher vote when he doesn’t even know the evidence points to ADMINISTRATORS having been the more likely culprit?

Is the Ox campaign run by a bunch of clowns?

Agent of change?

July 18th, 2010
5:22 pm

But try as he might, could jimd get the AJC to meaningful look into the ethical shortcomings at GCPS? The question remains, is participation here ultimately a fool’s errand?


July 18th, 2010
5:31 pm

Agent of change? : Yeah, probably a fool’s errand, but….what the h3ll.


July 18th, 2010
7:29 pm

If jim d has passed on, I’m also sorry to hear it. His posts were always passionate and thought-provoking.


July 18th, 2010
8:16 pm

I never knew what an e-mail was…………esplain.


July 18th, 2010
9:12 pm

I don’t think school email should ever be used for political purposes, and I never used it for personal purposes until my boyfriend got deployed to Iraq. My district blocks yahoo, etc., all personal email servers, and I am usually at work 7:45am-5 pm, just the time span that Mr. Booklover is back in his quarters and has a chance to write me. If it’s something urgent, timely, or he just wants to say “love you!” he’ll send it to my school address, because if he sends it to my personal email, I can’t get it until he’s already asleep and therefore it can take us a day or more to get a simple question answered. I’ll sometimes send short emails to his Army email for the same reason. I guess if someone wants to bust me for that, you go right on ahead. All the really juicy stuff is kept to our personal emails, however.

OTOH, I’ve also emailed colleagues on facebook because students were having personal problems that I didn’t want documented on the school servers. For example, I once emailed a coach to talk to one of his players about some sensitive issues.

Lisa B.

July 18th, 2010
10:25 pm

Don’t worry about jim d. He’s still around. How this misinformation about his passing get out? He’s just smoking a little more these days.

Dana not @GaDOE

July 18th, 2010
10:58 pm

This is an interesting case. When I was at GaDOE and in my new job, I am always very careful what I send from my work computer. But given how much communication is done by email, I think it’s resonable to expect that a person can send or receive a personal email on a personal email address and have some privacy. After all, at my current school system, we send news about school emergencies by email (as well as several other ways). Of course, it’s different if the employee is using personal email to circumvent Open Records (e.g. sending work emails from a personal address). But that’s not what’s at issue in this ruling I believe. Still, this is why I have two phones–a work phone and a personal phone.

@Dana not DOE

July 18th, 2010
11:22 pm

Was there ever any talk of DOE using the Open Records Requests in the cheating scandal, to find out what the leaders of those school systems knew, and when did they know it?


July 19th, 2010
1:25 am

re: work phone vs. personal phone – there’s also the issue of having to sit in the teachers lounge and discuss an issue with your doctor, banker, babysitter, etc. while 5-10 other teachers are also right there in the room, if you use the school phone.

But some of those people weren’t in the office before you left for school in the morning, and won’t be there by the time you get home in the evening, so what’s your other choice? Take a day off to make a phone call?


July 19th, 2010
1:27 am

It will be nice when Maureen gets back…the blog monster loves my comments.


July 19th, 2010
5:48 am

Once I click on “Send”, whatever email I send through my company’s computer becomes their property as well as the recipient. I have no pretense of privacy using the company’s electronic communication facilities.

On my home computer, I do have a certain degree of expectation of privacy from my internet service provider.

This Wisconson ruling is flawed, IMHO.


July 19th, 2010
6:12 am

I agree with Lee, this ruling seems flawed. If an employee used a personal email address while at work, there is an expectation of privacy. Any email sent/received using the employee domain is ‘usually’ property of the employer. I say usually because most employer handbooks I’ve seen have explicit language addressing this policy.

An advocate for public education change & choice

July 19th, 2010
9:34 am

Very interesting ruling on the surface. Consider if you will in the private sector employees don’t have an inherint right or expectation to privacy when sending personal communications via corporate systems in the majority of cases.

Why would we expect government workers to have an greater sence of expectation to privacy in simular circumstances?


July 19th, 2010
9:46 am

@booklover – do NOT, NOT, NOT use facebook to talk about students. they have had a ton of issues re: their privacy that have been public. if you need to have a conversation that you don’t want documented – GO TALK TO THAT PERSON.

GA is not likely to follow WI down this road. Be careful what you put in writing folks.

Larry Major

July 19th, 2010
3:36 pm

To those who didn’t know:

Poster “jim d” was Jim Dumond – the man who relentlessly insisted on starting Concerned Parents of Georgia, back when taking the positions we did would bring a noticeable chunk of the world down on your head.

If you only knew him through his posts here, rest assured he was far more colorful in real life, as the Gwinnett BOE will willingly attest.

Jim was very intelligent and quite capable of holding his own in a serious debate. The record has to be when Jim and I went at it on the CPOG message board over vouchers for 25 hours straight. (We were the two board admins, so who better to set an example.) When I saw him a couple days later, we looked at each other and broke up laughing. People said we acted more like brothers than some brothers do and I guess they had a point.

In addition to education issues, Jim spent a lot of time working with kids whose lives will stand as a living tribute to him for generations.

Jim’s real talent was his ability to initiate (or provoke, maybe) a conversation. If there was an issue he felt warranted more public discussion, trust me, he could make it happen.

My world got darker when Jim died in March, but I had to smile when I read the posts about him in this thread; the man can still stir up a debate.

Maureen Downey

July 19th, 2010
3:57 pm

I wanted to say how sorry I was sorry to hear about the death of longtime Get Schooled poster Jim Dumond. Not only was he a great contributor to the blog, but he also sent me wonderful links to relevant education articles. I found several obits online for him.
Jim D was a wonderful poster, a straight shooter who seemed to really care about quality education. Maureen