Wyoming task force proposes to mostly exempt student emails from public records disclosure requirements

WYOMING — Wyoming legislators have requested legislation to make student emails at the University of Wyoming mostly exempt from the state’s public records law.

The proposal comes in response to the University of Wyoming’s testimony to the Digital Information Privacy Task Force that school officials released student emails to the Laramie Boomerang newspaper in response to the paper’s public records request regarding discussion of a state gun bill, said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, a Republican on the task force.

After hearing the testimony, the task force, which is composed of legislators and citizens, instructed the legislative service office to draft a proposal to exempt UW students from the public records law, Lindholm said. The task force is expected to see a draft version at its next meeting at the end of July.

The legislation will protect student emails written to non-public officials — so emails between students and their parents and friends would be exempt from public records requests.

“As soon as [they] make contact to a state employee, that’s when they’ll lose that protection,” Lindholm said.

No public records law in the country specifically addresses student emails, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Under Wyoming public records law, if a private individual sends an email to someone who is subject to a public records act — such as city councilperson or other official — that email becomes public record, said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat and chairman of the task force.

UW requires students to use the university’s email system, and because that system is government-run, it is subject to Wyoming public records law, said Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association.

Angell said that he would support a change that exempted correspondence between non-government officials — not a blanket exemption for all student emails. The press association plans to closely follow the legislation, he said.

Currently, student emails are held to a much higher standard of disclosure than even legislator emails, said Lindholm. Legislators in Wyoming do not have to release emails from their official legislative email accounts, he said.

“To hold them to this accountability that we don’t hold our elected officials to is why I think this is a dangerous precedent,” he said. “It speaks to me as sort of a top-down tyranny.”

Lindholm said transparency in government should not extend to students, as they are not government officials.

The current law enables disclosure of student emails that could include immature or emotion-fueled statements, he said.

“Sometimes we put things in emails joking around, or in a moment when we’re upset, things like that, that are meant to be between you and another person, and when we’re talking about 17- and 18-year-old young men and women, taking into consideration public records request is not at the top of [their] priority list,” he said.

He said that most students are probably unaware that this law applies to their emails.

“That’s a whole lot to swallow as a freshman at the University of Wyoming,” he said. “I’m sure it’s handed out in a nice pamphlet…what 17 or 18-year-old is taking the time read that? One out of a 1,000?”

Rothfuss believes allowing for student email release is an “unintended consequence” of the current law. Lindholm agrees.

“I think it was an accident…that we did not make an exemption for 17- and 18-year-old young men and women that find themselves being held to the same standard as [state] employees,” Lindholm said.

Wyoming’s open records law affords the public access only to government records that are, in the words of the statute, “created, accepted, or obtained by the state or any agency, institution or political subdivision of the state in furtherance of its official function and transaction of public business.” So LoMonte said that purely personal emails among students already would be subject to withholding under existing law.

The task force plans to review the preliminary draft legislation during its next meeting on July 28 and 29. The next session of the Wyoming legislature begins Feb. 8, Rothfuss said.

Lindholm plans to actively support the legislation. He said it has a good chance of passing.

“I think we’ve got the right mindset in the Wyoming legislature to go after this one,” he said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Trisha LeBoeuf by email or at 202-974-6318.