Wyoming soon could become the first state in the country to tell inquiring minds to butt out of student emails, even those concerning government actions.
That’s because a group of lawmakers recently voted to modify the state's public records law, possibly making all student emails, even those related to government, private.
The decision to draft a bill was made in the name of student privacy. Student emails should never be public information, said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.
But some public records advocates worry it could signal the early rumblings of a legislative tidal wave that would ultimately cut off access to some public records in schools across the state. Those records could potentially expose corruption and other illegal activities that government could try to hide.
Furthermore, many say the exemption is unnecessary. Students' personal or private communications are protected under current disclosure laws.
Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne lawyer who often represents the Star-Tribune and other state media organizations in court scuffles for records, said that the law narrowly defines a public record as documents related to government.
According to state law, a public record has to be “in furtherance of the transaction of public business of the state or agency.”
In other words, in Wyoming, public records do not include personal conversations between two students or any other correspondences that are not deemed in the public’s interest.
Chris Boswell, the University of Wyoming’s Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs, further confirmed that the university provides only emails that pertain to official university or government business.
The issue was raised after members of the privacy task force learned that the university had provided the Laramie Boomerang with emails between students and their student government representatives. The paper was looking for emails that addressed a legislative proposal to allow guns on campus.
“We were all shocked that anyone would under any circumstance consider a student’s email as a public record,” Rothfuss said.
The eight-person Task Force on Digital Information Privacy voted unanimously to draft a bill that would change that, Rothfuss said. The task force is meeting at the end of the month to further discuss the issue.
Rep. Mary Throne, D-Cheyenne, said that she doesn’t see a scenario in which student emails should be public.
“I don’t think the public really has any interest reading private student emails," she said. "And that’s what we’re trying to protect: private student email. Nothing more than that.”
Rothfuss said that he wasn’t aware of a state where student emails could be obtained by a records request.
But Frank Lomonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., said they are public in all states. Wyoming would become the first in the country to exempt all student emails.
“And it actually wouldn’t make a lot of sense … It’s fine to say that emails containing confidential educational information can be withheld, but it really makes no sense to have that as a blanket proposition,” he said.
Lomonte said the matter came up at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when the school received a records request for public comment regarding changing the name of a building, which had a racist history.Trustees ultimately said that the emails were public.
“There’s this national wave of panic that doesn’t seem to be grounded in reality, at all. There’s this movement among activists to close off access to public data, but no one has ever been able to point to anything harmful that has happened to anyone as a result of their data being obtained," he said.
“We know that lots and lots of harmful things are happening because the public can’t get access to information. There’s all kinds of crimes that are being concealed and hazards that are being downplayed because people can’t get access to schools already ... The legislature should really be looking at going the other way.”
Lomonte said the biggest danger is the prospect of closing off access to emails from student government officials.
Adam Croft, last year’s news editor of The Branding Iron, UW’s student newspaper, knows a little about that.
Last spring Croft received a news tip in which a source told him that the student body president, Ahmed Balogun, had instructed his staff not to talk to the paper. Balogun apparently was upset by the way the Branding Iron had covered student Senate meetings, Croft was told, and this was retaliation.
So Croft requested emails that would definitively tell him whether the student-elected president had ever sent the note. When the emails arrived, about 75 total, the 21-year-old had his answer: Balogun had not.
But in the future, Croft and other student journalists wouldn’t be able to cover their student government officials as effectively if an exemption were added to the law.
“It’s a really valuable tool. It’s not just ASUW, but there are other instances where confirming (tips) via emails is really powerful,” Croft said, giving the example of investigating misconduct by resident advisers in dorms.
“They spend a lot of time overseeing halls of (10,000) or 15,000 people; they have a lot of power over those people,” he said.
On Monday, Rothfuss said that he wouldn’t call student government a public body, though on Tuesday he eased his tone.
“You’d be pretty hard-pressed to say that a student government is a public organization,” he said. “We can discuss that as it comes up certainly, but to say that ASUW members are now subject to public records act …” Rothfuss said, chuckling to himself at the idea, before trailing off. “I’ll stop right there. If you want to take that position and come debate with me and take a strong position, then I’ll look forward to that in Sheridan when you’re giving public testimony."
Rothfuss said he was upset with the questions that members of the media have been asking him. He said there was an apparent bias. He also said previous coverage featured only one side of the argument.
When asked Tuesday if there were any instances where a student had been harmed due to information obtained from a public records request, he admitted that he didn’t know of any. But he said that if he turned to Google he could likely find something.
A Star-Tribune Google search did not locate any.