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August 11, 2010

Public employees personal E-mails exempt from disclosure from FOIL

Public employees personal E-mails exempt from disclosure from FOIL
Source: Adjunct Law Prof Blog; http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/adjunctprofs/
Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2010, Mitchell H. Rubinstein, Esq., Adjunct Professor of Law, St. Johns Law School and New York Law School, All rights reserved.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held in Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, 2010 WI 86 (July 16, 2010), that purely personal e-mails of public employees sent from workplace computers and e-mail accounts are protected from disclosure to a third party under the state Public Records Law. While the justices differed in whether such emails are even public records, a majority of the court determined that a public records custodian “should not release contents of emails that are purely personal and evince no violation of law or policy.”

This is a significant decision. Few businesses could operate today without the use of email. It is also likely that employees will sometimes use an employer's email system for personal use. Whether an email is “purely personal” will be based on a case-by-case determination, as the court makes clear that the contents of apparently personal e-mails could require disclosure if the email has some connection to a government function.

The decision involves only disclosure of personal email to third parties under the Public Records Law. The case does not involve the right of government employers to monitor, review or have access to the personal emails of public employees using the government email system.

Law review commentary on this important subject would be most welcome.

The Court’s complete opinion can be found at:
http://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=52285
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