What Part Of “Public Official” Don’t You Understand?

According to the Alaska Supreme Court, a public official’s private emails about state business are no different from any other record – they should be preserved and disclosed according to public records laws.

During the last presidential election, the press discovered that then-governor Sarah Palin used personal email accounts for state business. In October 2008, Andree McLeod, an activist and journalist submitted an open records request to the governor’s office and that same day filed suit alleging violations of the state’s Public Records Act and Records Management Act.

The Court sided with McLeod. Private emails regarding state business are no different than any other record – “those records preserved or appropriate for preservation under the Records Management Act are ‘public records’ under the Public Records Act.” Emails from private email accounts about state business should be treated the same as emails from the state-issued accounts.

Unfortunately, council members in the District of Columbia Public officials are trying the same trick. Let’s hope the D.C. court reaches the same conclusion as the Alaska Supreme Court.

The problem with this “private account” argument is that it elevates form over substance. The question isn’t whose computer the public official uses, it’s what is the substance of the communication? If the substance is public business, within the scope of that official’s job, it’s a public record. If the public official decided to write memos about public business on his personal stationery, would that make them “private”? Of course not. And a private email account is the digital equivalent of that stationery. At least, that seems to be the emerging consensus. Nice to see common sense prevail occasionally.