Personal email, public computers: Who owns it?

Mass. state law says all at-work documents are public, but Ariz. court rules that content, not computer ownership, controls.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

Government executives and courts across the country are coming up with different answers to the question of who owns personal emails sent by government employees using government computers. In Massachusetts, the Supervisor of Public Records recently ruled that state law makes all documents produced by government employees public property - except for some narrow exceptions - regardless of whether the emails were public or private in nature.

The decision regarded a case that was very private in nature.

Former Newburyport mayor Mary Anne Clancy admitted two years ago that she had exchanged "inappropriate" e-mails with Nock Middle School teacher Jason Beauparlant. The admission came after her husband, Brian Clancy, received copies of those e-mails and confronted Beauparlant at his Amesbury home. Brian Clancy was charged with assault, eventually admitted to sufficient facts and was sentenced to probation.

Quite a different result has been issued in Arizona, where that state's Court of Appeals has ruled that the public has no right to see the personal emails of a former county manager, even though he used a government computer to use Sheriff's Department funds to buy firearms, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel sided with former Pinal County Manager Stanley Griffis who said the public is not entitled to view 120 e-mails he wrote that he said were "documents of a personal nature." The judges said their presence on a county computer does not make them public.

The trial court had found for Phoenix Newspapers, which was trying to obtain the documents. The judge ruled that "everything that is on a computer of the Pinal County … governmental entity is presumed to be a public record." But the appeals court overruled, saying: "It is the nature and purpose of the document, not the place where it is kept, which determines its status," he wrote.

Pelander said a document is a public record if it is "required to be kept, or necessary to be kept in the discharge of a duty imposed by law or directed by law to serve as a memorial or evidence of something written, said or done." And that, the judge said, makes the e-mails off-limits to public scrutiny.
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