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Should e-mails to Sen. Hamerlinck fall under the purview of open records laws?

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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YES

Legislators can’t be accountable to the people if the people don’t know what they are doing.

The Iowa Senate should grant public-record requests of correspondence to and from state legislators’ government e-mail addresses. Following Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck’s indecorous comments to student lobbyists on June 6, the senator received more than 1,000 e-mails. When The Daily Iowan requested these e-mails, the request was denied; the Senate secretary justified the action by stating he wished to avoid a chilling effect on constituent communication with representatives.

I can imagine situations in which constituents would like to e-mail their representative with questions about a personal matter that they might not want to share with the general public. I certainly don’t want citizens to be discouraged from communicating with their elected officials, but I also don’t want private citizens influencing elected officials through their government e-mail addresses, away from the eyes of the public.

Sure, I don’t think citizens should be forced to reveal personal information. This concern could be solved by redacting inconsequential personal information in e-mails (although allowing the government to do that could lead to censorship under the auspices of protecting a private citizen — but efforts to mitigate this could be made.)

I am even more uncomfortable with the possibility that conversations between citizens and government officials will not be subject to public scrutiny. Iowans should be allowed to see how representatives are using their positions and their taxpayer-funded e-mail accounts.

Information about representatives’ actions is necessary to allow for the true consent of the governed. The people of Iowa have a right to see correspondances with their officials, and Hamerlinck’s e-mails should fall under the purview of open records laws.

— Will Mattessich

NO

Public officials are, of their own volition, public figures. When they willfully make statements that later backfire — for instance, telling students the political “circus” is only for legislators and to “Go back home,” as state Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck did so eloquently on June 6 — these public officials will naturally incur a public backlash.

But the private citizens who e-mailed Hamerlinck, either during the concerted e-mail campaign of outrage on June 17 or to congratulate him for his gusto, likely never anticipated their e-mails would be leaked. Despite a public-record request filed by The Daily Iowan to obtain the 1,500 or more e-mails sent to Hamerlinck during this period, the request was denied.

Exactly as it should have been. (Though my e-mail to the senator was largely composed of unfortunate statistics about Iowa’s education funding, I imagine many others who sent messages did not consider that their words would reach the media.)

For this construction of privacy, we have the 1966 Rosenblatt v. Baer decision to thank (not to mention a slew of similar cases since 1964). This Supreme Court ruling built on the precedent of “public” versus “private,” in that public officials who willingly take office and make themselves known are subject to a fair amount of scrutiny. While Hamerlinck expressed his views openly on the floor of the Statehouse, in front of the press and the student lobbyists alike, the concerned citizens e-mailing to rebuke him are doing and did so under the assumption of privacy.

When government business is discussed or communiqués between two public officials are requested, there is no reason a records request should not be granted. The same goes for public institutions lobbying our state legislators or for e-mails between governmental agencies. But it is rare enough that private citizens e-mail their legislators — so when they do, they should not have to fear future public disclosure when addressing government representatives however they so choose.

— Kirsten Jacobsen


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