Most students think nothing of dashing off a few e-mails. However, a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article has brought increased attention to a practice many view as private.
Lawmakers and public officials have worried about the issue of e-mail privacy for a while, namely because it is uncertain whether their e-mails are a matter of public record. E-mails written about public issues may fall under Wisconsin open-records statutes and be subject to investigation.
This matter has emerged as an important ground of legal dispute because there is no specific e-mail clause on the books.
According to Associate Attorney General Alan Lee, e-mail is treated like any other document.
“E-mail is no different than any other record,” Lee said. “It is presumed to be open to the public. In exceptions, the custodian has to justify withholding the e-mail.”
This has become a serious issue for many lawmakers who have reduced, and in some cases stopped, e-mailing about policy matters.
According to the Journal-Sentinel, Attorney General James Doyle discourages government employees from using e-mail to communicate about issues pertaining to their legislative work.
The open-records law applies not only to policy makers, but to state employees.
UW-Madison political science professor Charles H. Franklin said that as a state employee he, as well as a senator or a school-board member, is similar to an employee working for a private company.
“Employees of private corporations have no right to privacy when they send an e-mail through the company system,” Franklin said. “I think that the issue is that if I write a memo to my chairman, that memo falls under the open-records statute. An e-mail is no different.”
How this law will be interpreted by lawmakers is still unclear, but for now it appears students are safe. The open-records laws are designed to regulate the government — not private citizens.
However, with thousands of students sending mail over university-owned equipment, the door is open for possible future complications.
No one knows what could happen if, for example, professors suspect cheating and attempt to obtain their students’ e-mail records.
Franklin said this is a potentially dangerous situation and said he feels it is disturbing from a personal privacy point of view.
“There can be danger in pushing a public-access law like this,” Franklin said.
As this burgeoning and increasingly relevant issue is further explored, debates are sure to abound among lawmakers.
Maureen McNally, spokesperson for State Sen. Mary Panzer (R-West Bend), said any piece of legislation regarding e-mail privacy, government-related or not, would need to be looked at very carefully.
“Mary would need to take a close look at the bill,” McNally said. “[She] has a strong interest in keeping government open, but there needs to be a balance with public privacy.”