Privacy vs. accountability

Where to draw the line?

There are very few people (I hope) who want to see the e-mails that a public official sends about who is picking up junior from the Little League game.

But on the same grounds that such an email would be considered private (such e-mails are not about the public’s business) it would be equally the case that these e-mails could be considered private:

  • E-mails that are a record of, or part of, a sexual fling.
  • E-mails that are about a government employee’s private political activities.

And yet, most people believe (and a number of courts have ruled) that such emails are public, even though they are about private matters.

There are two main reasons for considering such private e-mails to be public:

  • The e-mail was sent on a government computer or was sent using a government server. On this thinking, it makes zero difference what the e-mail is about. If it was sent on a government computer, it’s public, and that’s the end of the story.
  • Even if a line can sometimes be drawn so that some e-mails sent on government computers are private, when a government employee is spending an inordinate amount of time sending and receiving sexual or political notes, then the public has a right to know about this, because it speaks to the question of whether the employee’s head is really into whatever his or her real job is supposed to be about–the job the taxpayers are footing the bill for.

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