Communications between constituents and elected officials

In Tennessee, there’s a dialogue going on about whether it is desirable for communications between constituents and lawmakers to be subject to open records.

That is–if you shoot your state legislator a quick e-mail saying you like or dislike a particular piece of legislation, should those communications be subject to state FOIA?

George Korda argues this may have a chilling effect on the willingness of citizens to speak freely to their legislators. He writes:

“The idea that any communication between a county commissioner and one of his or her constituents is automatically public record should be absurd on its face.”

I think most of us would like the freedom to speak freely to our elected representates without the prospect that the whole world might find out what we’re saying to them. I get that.

On the other hand, would I want to know if a powerful corporation or union was sending communications to my lawmaker urging certain courses of action? Yes. I would. Knowing what type of material is being sent to and read by my lawmakers is part of my ability to understand the decisions they make and what kind of pressures they’re getting.

I don’t see how you can draw a line between the occasional e-mail from an unaffiliated individual to his or her lawmaker, and the communications the lawmaker gets from the Big Guys without opening an extremely large can of worms.

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3 responses to “Communications between constituents and elected officials

  1. There are already whistlerblower and confidential information laws to protect legitimate privacy. People can express their concerns verbally by phone or in person to prevent creating a record. They can communicate their written concerns with letters with no return address or free email accounts.

  2. This comment was left by someone else but because of a technical glitch I’m posting it under my name:

    “Corporations have less rights so laws could distinguish between individuals and corporations. You could also allow disclosure of the fact of contact without disclosing the content of the email. This would allow for better balance without discouraging the public from contacting government. Public records laws are meant to allow for the scrutiny of government, not private persons.”

  3. The Public’s Business is usually viewed quite broadly in court. If the letter affected the decision of an elected official it is public business.

    If someone sends an elected official an offer to do something in exchange for a vote – like Abramoff scandal – or the attorney firing issue – we should be able to see the full content of those emails. Again – people are welcome to speak to their elected officials verbally or send documents without signing them if they do not want to be associated with the instructions.

    The scenario suggested about difference between Corporations and individuals is not helpful – Corporations are treated as humans in many respects and also the CEO of a firm can just say this was my personal message vs Corporate message – same message – it should be discloseable. Can’t you just see Lobbyists hiding all their communications in the same way?

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