Five Wisconsin teachers are objecting to the release of personal e-mails they sent using the school's computer pursuant to a citizen's public records request. The school district disclosed the e-mails after concluding that they were "records" under the applicable statute that did not fall into an exception for personal notes, drafts and like material created for the originator's use. In an argument scheduled for Nov. 10, the state Supreme Court will clarify the status of personal e-mails under the statute and weigh whether privacy concerns trump the public's interest in disclosure.
The e-mails in this case apparently didn't violate any school policy, and no-one's accusing the teachers of criminal wrongdoing (no child porn, internet harassment, cyberbullying, etc.). According to reports, the request was made as part of a "fishing expedition" (applicant's words) to see whether the teachers improperly used their work computers to discuss an upcoming school board election.
There's no doubting the interest served by public access laws, but I wonder if it's worth pressing them to their absolute limit. The First Amendment doesn't compel access to public records of this kind; access is instead a statutory privilege. So the more courts uphold requests for disclosure, the more incentive they create for lawmakers to narrow, if not outright repeal, the existing statute. Whether or not there's sufficient public outrage to serve as a deterrent I suppose is anyone's guess.
- Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District (certification by appellate court)
- WI State Bar Article (links to briefs and court docs)