The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that state officials may use personal email accounts to conduct official business, but some emails sent from private accounts may be subject to open records law.
The decision Friday (October 12) clarified a long-running dispute dating back to Sarah Palin's stint as governor, delivering a partial victory for a citizen activist who challenged her use of personal email for state matters.
In 2008, Andree McLeod filed a public records request for all emails sent from the private email accounts from the governor and her husband Todd Palin. She also sued the state, arguing the governor must preserve all correspondence related to state business, regardless of the email account used. Additionally, McLeod argued the use of personal email for official business amounts to “obstruction” of the public's right to inspect public records.
The state argued officials should have discretion over which emails to save, and that any deleted record was automatically exempted from open records law.
The Supreme Court called both arguments “extreme.” It upheld most of a lower court's ruling, saying private emails “are no different from any other records — those records preserved or appropriate for preservation under the Records Management Act are “public records” under the Public Records Act.”
The Alaska ruling comes as many states grapple over what constitutes a public record in the digital age, looking to balance officials' privacy and the public's right to know.
In August, open records advocates criticized Sean Parnell, Alaska's current governor, after a former staffer told the Anchorage Daily News the administration frequently use text messages, which are not archived as public records, to communicate sensitive information.
Sharon Leighow, Parnell's press secretary, told Reuters the administration considered the Supreme Court ruling as "favorable."
"Text messages are, by their nature, transitory, so they wouldn't be appropriate for preservation or constitute public records,” she said.
In July, an Associated Press investigation found that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn't conduct any business through state or personal email, instead using un-archived PIN messaging through his BlackBerry cellphone.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez this summer ordered all state employees to exclusively use their state-issued email accounts for work matters. That followed disclosure that her top officials had used mostly personal email, as reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican.