Are Teacher’s E-Mails Public Records?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this week ruled on an interesting question. Are e-mail messages from public school teachers, sent on the school’s computer system, public records under Wisconsin law? The lower court said they were, and ordered their release. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and decided that the messages were not subject to public review. Here’s the full court ruling. It’s interesting. Three of the seven justices felt that because the e-mails concerned non-school matters, they were not even “records” under the statutory definition. That’s not an unusual view. There is an Ohio case that essentially reached that conclusion (although that case involved a sheriff’s department, not a teacher). But three justices do not make a majority. Two other justices concurred in the result – that the e-mails should remain private – but disagreed with the reasoning of the other three. The two concurring justices felt the e-mails were “records”, but were exempt for policy reasons. The policy? According to the concurring justices, a policy of permitting some personal use of government e-mail facilities promotes employee productivity and helps the government compete with the private sector for skilled personnel. This policy outweighs the public’s need for disclosure of government employees’ personal e-mail messages. In any event, the citizens of Wisconsin will not be able to find out what the teachers really think of their students. And while that may not be a public record, it would no doubt be entertaining.