Content Analysis Should Determine Whether Emails Are Public Records

24 Jul
July 24, 2007

Arkansas’s high court ruled that a "neutral court" should use content analysis to determine whether emails are public records.  The ruling came on a Freedom of Information Act case reported by this email blog.  It related to the case of former Pulaski County Comptroller Ron Quillin, who was accused of embezzling $42,000 while in office.  During the investigation, emails that were reportedly "highly personal and graphic" were found.

One side said that the letters were personal and should be private.  The other side said that the emails were on a government computer system and, therefore, are public records.  An Arkansas judge ruled that the act of sending an email to a government email address means that there is "no expectation of privacy." 

But, yesterday, the state high court chimed in.  It ruled that personal e-mail messages stored on state-owned computers should be reviewed by a "neutral court" to determine whether they qualify as public records and are subject to the state Freedom of Information Act.  (Source)

The ruling is based on the court’s interpretation of Arkansas’s public record law.  A public record is one "that constitute a record of the performance or lack of performance of official functions that are or should be carried out by a public official or employee."

The court noted that with the prevalence of employees using computers at work for personal e-mail, such correspondence on public computers does not automatically count as a record of the "lack of performance of official functions."

It went on to adopt a content-driven analysis to determine whether e-mail messages on public computers count as public records and sent the case back to the lower court to review the e-mail in question and determine whether there is a nexus between the e-mail and official state activity. (Source)

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