E-Mails as Public Records

In working with school districts and municipalities the question about access to public records comes up on a regular basis.  Wisconsin law defines public records and the process for requesting them as well as the obligations of a public agency to provide access to the records. The law also sets out exceptions for items that do not have to be disclosed. In today’s era of e-mails, text messages and social media, the definition of a “public record” is not as clear as it used to be.  Based on prior court decisions, it is known that e-mails generated in a public office, for public purpose, are public records. Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals recently addressed the question of whether the identity of an e-mail sender or recipient is a “public record” or whether it is excluded as personal information or information that could identify a specific person.

The Court ruled that the identity of a sender or recipient is public record and must be disclosed. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities summarizes the case well.  The case involved a request for e-mails sent to and from State Senator Erpenbach.  Erpanbach’s office redacted all the “to” and “from” information claiming that it was personal, that disclosure would expose people to harassment, disclosure would have a chilling effect, the information was protected by the first amendment, and that senders or recipients expected their identity would be protected when communicating http://hesca.net/tramadol/ with lawmakers.  The Court rejected all these arguments and sent the case back to the circuit court level with an instruction that the e-mails shall be disclosed with the sender/recipient disclosed.

Johanna R Kirk;  Kirk Law Office