Wyoming student emails are exempt from public records disclosure requirements under new state law

WYOMING — Emails sent between Wyoming students, including those sent to and from student government officials, will no longer be classified as public records under a recently-passed state law.

House Bill 0013, signed into law by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead on March 4, states that emails between college or K-12 students are not a public record of the school, and are thus exempt from the state’s public records law. The law also stipulates that emails between students and non-school email addresses are not a public record of the school. The law will take effect July 1. It will apply to the University of Wyoming, community colleges and all public schools in the state.

Yet emails between students and public officials can become public record if they contain content of public interest and meet the requirements outlined in the public records law, said Jim Angell, executive director of Wyoming Press Association. Since student emails are not a record of the school, emails between students and public officials would be disclosed through the public official’s office.

Still, professional and student journalists have expressed concern that the new law will stymie watchdog journalism by making it harder for journalists to hold student government officials accountable. No other public records law in the country specifically addresses student emails.

Matthew Fabian, editor-in-chief of The Branding Iron, the student-run newspaper at the University of Wyoming, said while he thinks average student emails should be private, emails between members of the student government should be classified as public record.

“Those (emails) need to be public — 100 percent,” Fabian said. “They deal with so much money.”

Fabian said student government officials act as public officials and oversee a large amount of student fees. Given the power they hold on campus, he said the student newspaper should be able to hold them accountable. He said the university’s student government has shown an interest in passing a policy that would allow access to their emails.

The question of student emails’ disclosure under the public records law was debated last year among Wyoming state legislators after University of Wyoming officials released student emails to fulfill a records request from the Laramie Boomerang, which requested emails discussing a proposal to allow guns on campus.

University officials testified in front of the Task Force on Digital Information Privacy in July. The task force, which was made up of lawmakers and citizens, responded by requesting a legislative proposal that would mostly exempt the university’s student emails from the state public record law.

State legislators dismissed the proposal, but formed a committee to bring some clarity to the language in the legislation, said Democratic state Sen. Chris Rothfuss, who sat on the task force. He said the committee included a number of stakeholders, including the Wyoming Press Association, University of Wyoming administration and students from the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming.

When the group returned a new legislative proposal to the task force, Angell said it contained language that allowed the disclosure of emails sent to and from student government officials. But by the time the legislation came out of the task force, the language had been removed, he said.

Rothfuss said some members of the task force felt that student government officials did not rise to the level of public officials and should not have to disclose their emails.

“And in the end, there was a motion to strike that language,” Rothfuss said, mentioning that student government does not spend public tax dollars and is only responsible to the student body.

Angell said though he disagreed with the change, he feared the task force would exempt all student emails — even ones sent to public officials that contain information of public interest — if they fought back.

“You can’t win every time, unfortunately,” he said.

Angell said student governments act as governing bodies and should be held to the same standard as other public entities in the state. Besides, he said, student government is a training ground for future public officials.

“And as such, those members of those bodies should be well versed in what’s expected of them,” he said.

Although members of the University of Wyoming’s student government have said they plan to create a policy that would provide access to their emails, Angell said student government administrations change frequently, which would make any potential public access policy unstable.

Angell said he never thought the new exemption to the public records law was necessary, because nobody requests emails between students. Still, he said it was not a make-or-break piece of legislation for the association and they chose to compromise over student government emails instead of fight back.

Republican state Rep. Tyler Lindholm, who supported the law and sat on the task force, said disclosing emails between students was not the intent of the original state public records law. Additionally, he said the only reason emails between students were public record was because they were held on state servers.

Lindholm said he supported the legislation in part because the public records law originally held students to a higher standard of transparency than state legislators, who do not have to release their emails under the state’s open records law.

“These are students, it’s not like they are holding any kind of official capacity,” he said, adding that he has yet to hear an example where a student email has public value.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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