Commonwealth Court rules in favor of newspaper, reporter in case involving school district emails

By Jon Campisi | Jan 26, 2012

A state appellate court has ordered a school district in Northeastern Pennsylvania to release board members’ email messages, a request that had been made by a local newspaper reporter.

The three-judge Commonwealth Court ruled that email correspondence between elected school board members that have to do with school district business is considered public information under the state’s open meeting law.

The newspaper, The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. and then-reporter Christopher Baxter, made a request under the Right-to-Know Law seeking emails between Easton Area School District board members sent and received between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31, 2010.

The district initially rejected the request on the grounds that the inquiry was insufficiently specific, and that board members’ emails involving internal deliberations were exempt from public inspection.

Baxter and the newspaper appealed to the Office of Open Records, arguing that the request for information was indeed specific enough, and that while certain emails may be subject to redaction, this did “not allow the School District to make a blanket denial of the request for all records under any of the reasons given,” according to court papers.

The Office of Open Records agreed with the newspaper, and saw fit to release the emails, a decision that was eventually affirmed by the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas.

The school district appealed the trial court’s ruling, arguing, with the support of an affidavit from its human resources director, that the emails reflected internal, pre-decisional deliberations.

Using case law to support its decision, Commonwealth Court ruled that the emails detailing board business should be released.

However, the court stopped short of issuing a blanket ruling that all emails generated on school district computers should be publicly accessible.

“While emails located on an agency-owned computer are not presumptively records of the agency simply by virtue of their locations, emails that document the agency’s transactions or activities are records,” the ruling states.

In other words, school officials using district email addresses for private messages having nothing to do with school business do not have to worry about having to release those messages for public consumption.

Only the emails dealing with district business are subject to public inspection, the judges ruled.

The court ordered the school district to release the requested documents that show “a transaction or activity of an agency and that were created, received or retained pursuant to law or in connection with a transaction, business or activity of the agency.”

The majority opinion was written by Judges Dan Pellegrini and Mary Hannah Leavitt.

Judge Robert Simpson, however, issued a concurring and dissenting opinion, writing that in particular, he disagreed with the majority opinion because of confusion over where the case goes from here.

“I do not understand what happens next. Does the School District initiate a new review for ‘private activities’ information, and the case starts all over again?” Simpson wrote. “Is the case remanded to the OOR [Office of Open Records] for a new review of e-mail content? Or, is the reversal part of the majority order purely prospective in nature, so that it does not apply to the current controversy at all but will only apply to future requests for e-mails? I am stumped.”

Baxter’s request sought emails from district Superintendent Susan McGinley, nine school board directors and the board’s general mailbox.

A story that appeared in Tuesday’s edition of The Morning Call quoted John Freund, an attorney representing the school district, as saying that he was pleased with the outcome of the ruling, praising the judges for recognizing that not all district email is a matter of public record.

But Freund was also quoted as saying that he was disappointed that the court disagreed with the school district’s argument that Baxter’s request was too vague.

“In that regard the court’s decision is just another unfunded mandate,” Freund told the newspaper.

Freund told the paper that the district is unlikely to appeal the appellate court’s ruling.

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