A lawsuit has placed the District of Columbia among a growing number of state and local governments wrestling with requests for public access to e-mails sent to or from officials' personal accounts.
The lawsuit (PDF), filed yesterday in District of Columbia Superior Court, challenged the D.C. Council's denial of a freedom of information act request for e-mails sent to or from council members' personal accounts related to public business. The plaintiff, the D.C. Open Government Coalition, alleged that the council is in violation of the city's own FOIA law.
Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said similar disputes are playing out in courts and legislative bodies across the country. To date, he said, the bulk of case law and policies have favored basing public access on content, and not ownership of an e-mail account or other technology. "If it's public business, it's public business," he said.
Most recently, Bunting noted that the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska ruled on October 13 in favor of public access to private e-mails that dealt with state business. That case stemmed from the fight over access to e-mails sent to or from former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Laura Handman, a partner at Washington's Davis Wright & Tremaine, said that given the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life, especially for elected officials, a number of state and local governments have recognized that public records should be determined "by subject matter and what you're doing and not from where you're doing it."
In the complaint filed in the District, which was first reported by The Washington Post, the coalition alleged that the council unlawfully denied its March request for e-mails from the past 60 days related to public business that were sent to or from council members' non-governmental accounts.