Open Access: Automatic legal warnings on emails violate law
Apr 07, 2012 (The Fayetteville Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Emails sent by employees at government agencies are usually open to public inspection and may be copied, forwarded or published by anyone.
But you wouldn't know that by reading the warnings at the bottom of every email sent by spokeswomen for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office and Fayetteville Public Works Commission.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Tanna's emails have this legal statement: "This email and any attached files are confidential and intended solely for the intended recipient(s). If you are not the named recipient you should not read, distribute, copy or alter this email."
PWC spokeswoman Carolyn Hinson's emails say they contain "privileged and confidential information" but include this unusual warning:
"Access to this communication by anyone else is unauthorized. If the reader is not the intended recipient, or an employee or agent responsible for delivering this communication to the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any distribution or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited and may be unlawful."
That's not what the state law says. With some exceptions, all emails by a local government or public entity, such as the PWC, are public records.
That's certainly the case when a public agency uses email to issue news releases or answer a reporter's questions.
Anyone could request copies of such emails under the public records law. And nobody needs permission to reproduce them or publish them in a newspaper or on the Internet, according to the N.C. Public Records Law.
The law says "public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people."
Tanna said she had no idea her outgoing emails contained the legal warning until a reporter contacted her this week. She said the tag line was being mistakenly added by the computer network at the Sheriff's Office. The tag line has been removed from her emails.
Hinson said she, too, was unaware of the tag line, which is automatically added to her emails after she sends them.
Frayda Bluestein, professor of public law and government for the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, said whether an email is public depends on the content.
Public attorneys may use emails to communicate confidential information to a governing board. But, Bluestein said, that privilege doesn't mean all emails from a public attorney are automatically private.
A more common disclaimer in public emails can be found in one used by Kim Nazarchyk, Eastover's town manager.
The bottom of his emails include this message: "Email correspondence to and from this sender is subject to the N.C. Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties."
Staff writer Andrew Barksdale can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3565.
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