Wyoming legislature kills draft proposal to exempt student emails from public records disclosure

WYOMING — State lawmakers have dismissed a proposal that could have potentially exempted all student emails on public colleges’ and universities’ servers from public records disclosure.

Instead, a committee consisting of the Wyoming Press Association, students and community college and University of Wyoming officials has been formed to sort through issues regarding current public records legislation pertaining to student emails.

“It’s a great chance for us to sort of understand everybody’s concerns and not rush in with what could be ill-considered legislation,” said Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association.

The issue of student email disclosure under state public records law arose earlier this year when the Laramie Boomerang requested and received student emails relating to a proposal to allow guns on campus, from UW officials.

Under Wyoming’s current public records law, for documents to be considered public, they must be sent or received in the course of public business, Angell said.

“Some people are of the mind that since [the University of Wyoming server is] a publicly financed server, everything on it is public. We disagree,” he said. “It’s not the source or the infrastructure used. It’s the content. Content is all.”

Wyoming’s public records law is comparable to other states — it does not allow access to records unrelated to government business, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

LoMonte said the proposal would have made journalists’ jobs harder, as online correspondence constitutes the bulk of modern communication.

“I actually think it’s commendable that they took the time to study it and realize that the proposal was problematic,” he said.

An ambiguous law

Brian Schueler, president of the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming and co-chairman of the committee, said the current law is ambiguous — and that ambiguity regarding what emails are covered under the law led to his personal emails being released, he said.

The Associated Students’ vice president, Emily Kath, with Schueler’s permission, requested Schueler’s emails about elections from the University of Wyoming. Following a review of whether the emails can be released under public records law, the university plans to release between 30 and 50 emails to Kath, he said.

Schueler said he is worried that the press might now receive his emails since he believes they will be in the public record.

He has set up a personal Gmail account in an effort to “retain some privacy,” he said.

Angell said the university’s disclosure of Schueler’s emails crossed the line into an invasion of privacy.

The student government does not believe there are sufficient protections for student emails, Schueler said.

The requirement under current public records law that records must be made or received in connection with the “transaction of public business” in order to be subject to disclosure presents significant challenges, he said.

“If I were a lawyer, I don’t think it would be a difficult argument to argue that every email at the university in some way or another contributes to the educational mission, or the mission of growing students, or that sort of thing,” Schueler said.

Schueler said a categorical exemption for student emails would be the most efficient solution, as targeted exemptions would require the university’s general counsel to review the request.

This could cause greater privacy issues, even for emails that the university determines are not subject to public records disclosure, he said.

In a recent meeting with the task force, the University of Wyoming officials said if they find evidence of a crime on the university email system, they are obligated to report it, Schueler said.

“Because the university owns those emails, they can respond to the content of those emails internally, and that is a way to violate privacy,” he said.

The draft proposal states that the custodian of student emails would be required to deny the right of inspection of electronic communications received, sent or stored by students using communication services at UW and any state community college.

Angell said legislators on the task force did not intend to exempt emails written between students and public officials. The draft proposal, as it was written, would have categorically exempted student emails from disclosure, he said.

“I can’t give enough credit that they saw that,” he said.

Any potential new wording in Wyoming’s public records law would have to balance privacy with the public’s right to know, Angell said. Schueler agrees.

The group will present recommendations on the issue to the Digital Information Privacy Task Force in time for the legislative task force’s September meeting.

Contact staff writer Trisha LeBoeuf by email or at 202-974-6317.