Thursday, June 7, 2012

Public Documents versus Personal Privacy: A Balancing Act

There was a time when school officials, i.e., faculty, staff, and administrators, could easily keep their private correspondence separate from their public communication. Sunshine laws across the nation opened up to public access the documents of governmental institutions. Still an individual could consciously prepare documents for public access while keeping their personal lives and correspondence private.

Documents by definition have always been printed on paper. Then, whoosh, modern communication technologies rushed in, and a document is now just a doc and may never exist in any other than an electronic format. Still the law of the land applies. A school employee creating a doc on a school computer or tablet device--whether of a professional or personal nature--could have it opened up to public inspection under a public records request.
E-mail messages are also considered public documents. They are quick and informal, so people can sometimes get careless with what is stated in an e-mail. But educators should remember that every e-mail arrives with a Forward button; it can be forwarded anywhere after it is sent. School e-mail should be restricted to school purposes. Personal party invitations (particularly if the party may involve alcohol) are probably best sent to and from personal e-mail accounts.

One other danger with e-mail being so quick and easy: it can potentially be used to circumvent an open meetings law. Public decisions need to be made in public meetings, not over a few e-mails.

Personal Notes
Now personal notes should remain personal, shouldn't they? Ah, but here is where things get tricky. The hard drives of school computers remain school property. The computing device was issued to the educator to conduct school business, so anything, including letters, notes, and photographs, could be potentially opened to public scrutiny.

Web Browsers
The web browsers of individual employees are also subject to potential public inspection. The public could ask to review the web browser history of an individual. It also can potentially ask for the browser bookmarks an employee has set.

The Trash
Finally, the mundane topic of the trash bin on the computer is important to mention. The fact is that nothing in this digital age ever truly goes away. You can delete your e-mail, but it still remains on a server somewhere. You can erase your hard drive, but probably your files are backed up elsewhere. Or your files can be retrieved with computer forensic techniques. And social media, i.e., postings on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, are beyond your control the moment you hit the enter key.

The Balance
School employees are not automatons for the digital age. They have personal lives. Human interaction and personal relationships remain at the heart of the education profession. Messages should and will recognize the uniqueness of the individuals to whom they were sent. No one has a problem with a personal shopping list being written on a school computer. No one minds that you browsed a vacation destination during your break (as long as it's not some hedonistic, clothing-optional haven). But school employees should try to keep their personal documents on their own personal devices and should send and receive their personal e-mail messages through a third party, e.g. Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, or Gmail.

It is not 1984 (the book by Orwell, not the year); Big Brother is not watching you. However, each and every public employee, using public funds, is charged with the responsible use of those public resources in their trust. This is good. We all pay taxes and expect our tax dollars to be used appropriately and responsibly.

If you have some other legal advice or personal insight on this subject, I would enjoy hearing back from you.

And now, if we could only get our state and federal legislators to be as open and forthcoming as they expect public employees to be!

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