Nevada’s public records law is clear: Public records are supposed to be open to the public to allow citizens to keep track of what government is doing.
That concept is at the heart of the dispute between the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Clark County School District. NPRI — a conservative think tank that regularly draws attention to public employee salaries — has requested a database of teacher email addresses from the district for the dubious purpose of reminding teachers when they’re allowed to quit the Clark County Education Association. The goal: increase union defections.
The district refused the request, and this week, District Judge Doug Smith ruled for the district.
Now, many teacher email addresses already are available in the public domain. The naming pattern isn’t hard to decipher. And because NPRI already knows the names of district employees as part of its TransparentNevada public-employee salary database, it would not be difficult to build a teacher email list of its own.
But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is simply whether the email addresses of Clark County teachers are public records or not. In his ruling, Smith answers no.
According to the Nevada Administrative Code, public records constitute “record[s] of a local government entity that [are] created, received or kept in the performance of a duty and paid for with public money.”
And, “records of a local government entity” is further defined to include “information stored on a magnetic tape, computer, laser disc or optical disc.”
So if we work backward, we find that district employee email addresses are stored in a database, which is stored on a computer, which is therefore a “record of a local government agency,” which is paid for by tax dollars and kept in the performance of a duty, which is facilitating the communication between the district and its employees. It would seem to be a public record.
Smith then says the database is confidential, based on NRS 239B.040(1)(a), which says “if a person or his or her agent provides the electronic mail address or telephone number of the person to a governmental entity for the purpose of or in the course of communicating with that governmental agency,” then it’s confidential.
But that doesn’t seem to apply here. Clark County teachers didn’t supply their addresses to a governmental agency; they were assigned that address by a governmental agency.
Smith disagrees: The law “does not make any distinction between ‘government-issued’ and ‘private’ email addresses. Rather, the statute references to ‘the electronic mail address of the person.’ There is no dispute that teachers are ‘persons’ and that teacher email addresses are provided and used for the purpose of communicating with CCSD, a governmental entity.”
But a distinction can easily and clearly be inferred from the law.
The most reasonable objection is the fear that NRPI would turn around and sell the teacher email database to a spammer, who would bombard teachers with commercial solicitations.
(Or worse, packs of spammers would simply demand their own copies of the database. At least one district official said teachers in the past have received solicitations for health insurance around the same time as they were urged to quit their union.)
But that fear — legitimate as it is — isn’t enough to justify keeping these addresses confidential under the law.
Finally, Smith says NPRI just doesn’t need the database. “NPRI fails to point to any interest that favors disclosure,” his ruling says. “Its argument is based on only the general presumption of openness contained in the Nevada Public Records Act.” Oh, that old thing!
In the case of Reno Newspapers v. Gibbons, the Nevada Supreme Court held that, “Nonetheless, the provisions of the [public records law] place an unmistakable emphasis on disclosure. The [law] expressly provides that its provisions ‘must be construed liberally’ to ensure the presumption of openness and explicitly declares that any restriction on disclosure must be construed narrowly.”
Smith quotes from the ruling, and obviously read those words in preparing his own decision. But the meaning, clearly, was lost.
Oh, by the way, in the Gibbons case, the state Supreme Court allowed the Reno Gazette-Journal to read the contents of the governor’s emails. That makes it hard to argue that simple email addresses aren’t public.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.