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Court: Teachers' Personal E-Mails Not Public Records

Teachers' personal e-mails on school district computers are not public records under Wisconsin law and need not be disclosed to records requesters, the state's highest court has ruled.

"There is a distinction between allowing public oversight of employees' use of public resources and invoking the Public Records Law to invade the private affairs of public employees by categorically revealing the contents of employees' personal emails," Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court wrote in the lead opinion.

The case grew out of a public records request by a local citizen for all e-mails sent and received on school computers by five teachers in the Wisconsin Rapids School District for about a six-week period in 2007. The district permits teachers to use school computers for personal e-mail. The requester, Don Bubolz, acknowledged in court proceedings that he was on a "fishing expedition" to examine whether teachers were using e-mail inappropriately.

The teachers did not object to disclosing work-related e-mails, but they sought an injunction to bar the district from disclosing their personal messages. A state trial court held that the teachers' personal e-mails were public records under Wisconsin law.

In its July 16 opinion in Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, the state's highest court voted 5-2 to reverse and hold that the personal messages did not need to be disclosed. The majority issued three separate opinions that offered slight distinctions in reasoning.

In a plurality opinion joined by two other justices, Chief Justice Abrahamson noted that the state's public records law was adopted in 1983, long before e-mail was in widespread use in the workplace. But most other states' courts that have considered the issue have also ruled that personal e-mail messages of government employees should be exempt from public-records laws.

"Disclosure of the contents of the teachers' personal emails does not keep the electorate informed about the government and sheds no light on official acts or the affairs of government," Abrahamson wrote.

Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, in a dissent joined by one other justice, said the public-records exception for personal e-mails "prevents the public from discovering what public employees are doing during the workday, in the workplace, using equipment purchased with public funds. In so doing, the court contravenes Wisconsin's long history of transparency in and public access to actions of government employees."

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