Wis. open records case involving teachers' personal e-mails moves to state Supreme Court

WISCONSIN -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to decide if personal messages sent from teachers' district e-mail accounts are considered public records and should be released.

On June 16, the state Supreme Court granted review for Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District. After hearing the case in April, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District IV certified the case for the state's high court without granting a decision.

The case arose in 2007 after a private citizen filed a public records request for six weeks worth of e-mails from five teachers' school accounts in the Wisconsin Rapids School District in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. The requester said he was on a "fishing mission" to determine if teachers were using their district accounts for personal e-mailing too often.

The district's computer usage policy states that employees may use their accounts for "occasional personal use."

Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which is representing the teachers, said the teachers were in full compliance with the e-mail policy.

"We're confident that the court will find that personal e-mails are not public records as defined by law," Brey said. "This affects a lot of people in different roles, not only teachers and support staff but people who work in other areas as well."

Upon receiving the public records request, district officials notified the teachers that they planned to release the e-mails after redacting Social Security numbers, information regarding students' records, and personal information.

While the teachers did not object to the release of work-related e-mails, they filed an injunction to prevent the district from making personal messages public. On March 25, a circuit court judge ruled the e-mail messages were open records and should be released.

The appeals court is asking the state Supreme Court to first decide if personal e-mails are "records." If so, the Supreme Court must decide if the "presumption favoring disclosure of public records is overcome by the public interest in protecting the privacy and reputational rights of its citizen," according to a release from the Supreme Court.

By Brian Stewart, SPLC staff writer

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