Last week, a judge in Virginia ruled that a county commissioner had to turn over to him e-mails that she wrote:
- At home
- On a computer she purchased with her own money
- Using a server that she pays for with her own money
Jeff Wolinski is one of the people who corresponded with county supervisor Lori Waters. Emails between Wolinski and Waters are part of what requestor Sally Mann seeks.
In a comment here, Wolinski sheds some light on this:
My communications of a political nature with Mrs. Waters, who I raised funds for, are in question.
Although this might appear to be a backwater dispute, it has huge ramifications. Fundamentally what is at issue is the extent to which politicians can conduct a private campaign.
There are two competing concerns.
One of them is that it isn’t good for the public’s right to know for elected officials to evade public scrutiny by conducting their official business at home, on a private computer, using a private server. I agree with the judge that we have to be careful not to allow public officials to “privatize” communications that amount to public business by doing it that way.
On the other hand, I believe that an elected official ought to be able to conduct his or her campaign in private. In other words, if a public official who is a candidate for public office wants to use his or her private (or campaign) computer at the campaign office or at home, to write any number of emails that contain frank, unadulterated political talk and guidance about campaign business, that should remain private (unless they are written on government computers, or on government time, or using a government server).
The problem comes when campaign business commingles with the public’s business. Consider an email that says:
Did you hear back from John on Saturday’s fundraiser? Don’t let him bring his godawful son. If he hasn’t called yet, when he does, remind him to have his lobbyist call Jane about the water bill.
Assuming that e-mail is written on a private computer, with a private server, and not on government time, is it a public document?
The nature of email means that judges all over the country are going to be considering questions like this. If this ruling in Virginia stands on appeal, public officials who are also running for office–the office they are currently in or a different one–should be very nervous.
Sally Mann Court Opinion. (PDF file)