A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Monday, July 19, 2010

Attempted "gotcha" on teacher emails fails-- for now

From Edweek's school law blog:
Teachers' personal e-mails on school district computers are not public records under Wisconsin law and need not be disclosed to records requesters, the state's highest court has ruled.

"There is a distinction between allowing public oversight of employees' use of public resources and invoking the Public Records Law to invade the private affairs of public employees by categorically revealing the contents of employees' personal emails," Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court wrote in the lead opinion.

The case grew out of a public records request by a local citizen for all e-mails sent and received on school computers by five teachers in the Wisconsin Rapids School District for about a six-week period in 2007. The district permits teachers to use school computers for personal e-mail. The requester, Don Bubolz, acknowledged in court proceedings that he was on a "fishing expedition" to examine whether teachers were using e-mail inappropriately.

The teachers did not object to disclosing work-related e-mails, but they sought an injunction to bar the district from disclosing their personal messages. A state trial court held that the teachers' personal e-mails were public records under Wisconsin law.

In its July 16 opinion in Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, the state's highest court voted 5-2 to reverse and hold that the personal messages did not need to be disclosed. The majority issued three separate opinions that offered slight distinctions in reasoning.

In a plurality opinion joined by two other justices, Chief Justice Abrahamson noted that the state's public records law was adopted in 1983, long before e-mail was in widespread use in the workplace. But most other states' courts that have considered the issue have also ruled that personal e-mail messages of government employees should be exempt from public-records laws.

"Disclosure of the contents of the teachers' personal emails does not keep the electorate informed about the government and sheds no light on official acts or the affairs of government," Abrahamson wrote.

Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, in a dissent joined by one other justice, said the public-records exception for personal e-mails "prevents the public from discovering what public employees are doing during the workday, in the workplace, using equipment purchased with public funds. In so doing, the court contravenes Wisconsin's long history of transparency in and public access to actions of government employees."

I an sure that Mr. Bubolz never ever uses work-supplied technology for personal reasons, if indeed he has time to work while he is ferreting around trying to cast aspersions upon teachers. And I wonder if Justice Roggensack would like her personal emails opened up for public viewing?

I will admit that I am very paranoid-- I mean, cautious-- about using the school email system for personal reasons. However, given that teaching often requires one to put in long hours after the actual school day is over, sometimes one just can't avoid taking care of personal business on school computers.

But I have found that this divide between personal and private life doesn't work going the other way. I was recently chided by another district employee for not checking my work email over the summer. You know what my response was? Unlike this person, I do not receive paid vacations- nor do any teachers that I know. Summer is unremunerated time, and given the dedication I show during the school year, summertime is family and personal time. Period.

Over my career I have seen an explosion of technology in the classroom. I started out without even an intercom system and now we have phones, computers, automated messaging systems, and voice mail. We were told that all this technology would make our lives easier and increase productivity. Like workers everywhere, I notice that the main outcome from this growth of technology is to enable more tasks to be dumped on me and to provide my supervisors yet more ways to avoid communicating (My personal favorite? The assistant principal who claimed he didn't get my email as he played a game on his brand-new, district-provided iPhone).

We are constantly reminded that we are salaried employees, and that we are required to perform any tasks assigned to us-- it's right there in our contracts. It would be nice if it was remembered that we are also people with lives.

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At 7/19/10, 5:24 PM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

Great post, and I love your conclusion. It's more important than most people realize or care to consider.

I've heard that my union, the UFT, is involved in a lawsuit contending that work email need be checked only at work, and that instructions in work email at, say, 6 PM Tuesday, need not be followed Wednesday morning. We're advised to check work email at work only.

At 7/19/10, 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm confused by the language in this ruling.

Are the teachers using the district e-mail for personal business? Or are they accessing their personal e-mail from their ISP, gmail, or other webbased e-mail from school computers?

If it is the first one - I still think it is a bad idea for anything other than very brief messages.

If it is the 2nd, they are accessing their own private e-mail from school computers, that is different. I think the amount of time they spent logged in could be relevent to are they teaching or taking care of personal business, but the content is not the business of the public.

I can access my school e-mail on my personal I-phone. I also access my personal accounts on my I-phone. It is not the district or anyone else's business what is in those e-mails.

At 7/20/10, 8:37 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Oh, until recently, the district made it darn near impossible to access gmail, hotmail, etc. on school computers, so people were rather forced to use the school email system for some personal uses.

We have families. We have lives. And there is no longer such a thing as a bright line between work lives and personal lives in America, "thanks" to technology.

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