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Government business on private email must be public, Reporters Committee argues

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  1. Freedom of Information
Government officials should not be allowed to conceal their public activities by utilizing private email and texting accounts, the Reporters…

Government officials should not be allowed to conceal their public activities by utilizing private email and texting accounts, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in a letter brief joined by national and state media organizations and filed in the Third Court of Appeals of Texas.

The Reporters Committee brief argues that the county commissioner seeking to keep such communications from the public in Adkisson v. Abbott should be compelled to release emails discussing government business sent from his private account. To do otherwise would violate the very foundations of the Texas Public Information Act (PIA) and give officials cover to conceal misdeeds and illegal behavior from public scrutiny, the brief added, citing numerous examples of both. Even at its most benign, allowing public officials to hide such communications creates significant gaps in the historical record and public understanding of government activity.

“Allowing government officials to escape public scrutiny simply by utilizing a private email or text account would effectively gut the Texas Public Information Act,” said Reporters Committee Freedom of Information Director Mark R. Caramanica. “If a communication is about public business, it is the public’s business, no matter if it comes from an official government account or a gmail account.”

A lower court judge earlier ruled in favor of the San Antonio Express-News and parent company Hearst Corp. that Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson must release email from his private account that has to do with government business, and to pay the newspaper’s legal fees. Adkisson appealed.

“Private email and text messages give officials an easy way to conceal their conduct and deprive the public of a full understanding of their official actions,” the letter brief stated. “[T]hese platforms enable officials to take public positions that contradict their private email and text messages and otherwise distort the official record. The only way the public ever receives the full picture of an official’s actions in such situations is if those same private email and text communications are made public.”

Joining the Reporters Committee on the letter brief were The Associated Press, Belo Corp., Dow Jones & Company Inc., the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, and the Texas Press Association.

About the Reporters Committee:

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Brief: Adkisson v. Abbott, No. 03-12-00535-CV