Friday, July 16, 2010

Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules Communications Sent Using State Government Electronics Does Not Automatically Make it Subject to Open Records Law

In a victory for employee privacy rights, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that just because a public employee uses a work computer to send an e-mail, it doesn't automatically make that message subject to the state open records law. The 5-2 decision overturns a lower court's ruling that ordered five Wisconsin Rapids School District teachers to turn over private messages.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the decision:

No state has ruled that private e-mails should be subject to open records disclosure, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said in her majority ruling.

"While government business is to be kept open, the contents of employees' personal e-mails are not a part of government business," she said.

Abrahamson noted that e-mails were not contemplated when the state passed the open records law in the 1970s. Thirty years ago, government workers wrote personal messages and either mailed them or threw them away, but now they are instead put into e-mails, she said.

The dissenting justices cautioned that the ruling will provide a blanket exception for government workers to sidestep the open records law simply by claiming their e-mails are personal.

"This broad exception prevents the public from discovering what public employees are doing during the workday, in the workplace, using equipment purchased with public funds," said Justice Patience Roggensack. "In so doing, the court contravenes Wisconsin's long history of transparency in and public access to actions of government employees."

Roggensack was joined in the dissent by Justice Annette Ziegler.

The case is Karen Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District.

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