Are emails public records?

That’s been the question of the week on WikiFOIA. Conveniently, the Seattle Times is running a terrific article on that very question:

Are emails public records?

The article describes a court ruling from a Spokane, Washington court in 2000 that ruled that hundreds of emails written by a government employee on a government computer were not to be released under open records. The employee had been sexually assaulted, and the emails were about that. I agree with the judge’s ruling. 

On the other hand, there are many times when it is not so easy to say what makes an email private.

What if I wanted to spend several hours a day on my government computer writing emails expressing my private political opinions? Or my private religious beliefs?

Aren’t religious and political beliefs in some way just as private as emails about one’s emotional suffering or the fact that you want the kids to put the casserole in the oven at 5:00?

If emails about emotional suffering are exempted, I can see a savvy attorney arguing that emails expressing private political and religious beliefs–including to others who might share those beliefs–should similarly be regarded as private.

Meanwhile, others would react to those emails as providing proof that the employee was engaging in possibly illegal political organizing on the taxpayer’s dime.

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