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Texas Third Ct. of Appeals says public officeholders’ personal email addresses are public

In an important ruling hailed by Open Government advocates, the Texas Third Court of Appeals said the personal email addresses used by public officials to conduct public business may not be withheld from information released under a Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) request. 

"Public officials and employees have no excuse for using their personal email accounts to conduct official business in the first place, and, now, if they do it, their personal email addresses will be publicly disclosed," said plaintiff’s attorney Bill Aleshire to The Texas Tribune.

Aleshire, represented online investigative news website, The Austin Bulldog.

The court’s decision overturns 15 years of Texas Attorney General’s office interpretation of Section 552.137 of the Texas Government Code which says an email address belonging to a “member of the public” may be withheld from release under the TPIA.

The A.G.’s office had long held that it also applied to the personal email addresses of public officials, even when those email accounts were being used to conduct government business.

For those using such emails to report on governmental bodies’ activities, such as broadcast newsrooms, it can be frustrating to determine who actually is speaking on a particular government issue in an email issued with a personal email account.

Such emails are informal and often lack identifying information as opposed to public accounts which have a governmental body email address and address block.

Open Government advocates say the ruling is important because the practice of using personal email accounts to conduct governmental business is utilized by the state’s lowest and highest public officials, with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s blessing.

Friday’s ruling stems from the Bulldog’s 2011 TPIA request for emails sent by Austin’s mayor, council members and the city manager regarding public business amidst revelations that Austin’s mayor and council members were deliberating public business in emails and privately, a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The City of Austin complied, partially, by releasing emails from city accounts but withheld others while seeking a Texas A.G.’s office ruling on their release.

The state eventually ruled that the city must release those emails, even those from private accounts if they pertained to public business.

The City of Austin did so but redacted the personal email address of city officials who had used personal email accounts to conduct public business, citing the 552.137 exception to personal email addresses’ release under the TPIA.

The court’s ruling overturned a district court’s decision which upheld the A.G.’s office’s interpretation of 552.137, meaning the personal email addresses could be withheld.

In its ruling, the court said the "member of the public" defined in 552.137 refers only to "a person who belongs to the community or people as a whole."

When conducting public business, the court ruled, city officials are members of a governmental body and "therefore, the City Officials’ email addresses are not shielded from disclosure and must be disclosed as public information."

The City of Austin has advised city officials of the ruling, but no decision has been made to appeal the case.

Questions? Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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