We’re troubled by a recent opinion from the office of Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell that could hamper transparency of government documents.
Caldwell’s office issued an opinion concluding that a public housing official can keep private a handful of personal email messages sent on his public email account.
The opinion stems from a dispute between Jerome Boykin, head of the Houma NAACP, and Wayne Thibodeaux, head of the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority.
Boykin claims Thibodeaux created an unflattering flier about him during a political campaign, a charge that Thibodeaux denies.
The dispute triggered a request to look at Thibodeaux’s work emails, but Thibodeaux has argued personal messages sent on his government email account should be kept private.
An opinion written by Assistant Attorney General Emalie A. Boyce supported Thibodeaux: “Purely personal emails at issue are not subject to production under the Public Records Act.”
While attorney general’s opinions don’t carry the force of law, public officials often use these opinions as important guides in how they conduct their business. This opinion sends the wrong message about public accountability.
We wonder why a public official is sending “purely personal” messages on a taxpayer-funded email account. Officials who use government email accounts should, unless guided by some narrow exception in the state’s public records law, expect the electronic documents they generate will be open to public view.
The attorney general’s opinion is an open invitation to abuse of the public records law, creating the prospect that public officials will classify any number of email communications as “personal” in order to hide politically inconvenient exchanges about public policy.
We hope the courts, the ultimate arbiters of such questions, offer clarity on the issue of public access to government emails, and keep the public’s right to know at the forefront of any decision.