Judge misreads law in email address ruling

Confidential government records are kept from the public. If a record is published in a public domain and is easily accessible, it is not confidential.

District Judge Doug Smith takes a different view. Judge Smith this week declared the Clark County School District’s database of teacher email addresses confidential, even though almost all teacher email addresses are listed on the Web pages of individual schools.

Judge Smith’s decision turned Nevada’s public records law upside down in upholding the school district’s refusal to release teacher email addresses to the Nevada Policy Research Institute. The free-market, fiscally conservative think tank requested every teacher email address from the school district.

During each of the past two summers, NPRI has emailed teachers to alert them of the limited window to exit their union, the Clark County Education Association. However, NPRI’s reason for wanting the email addresses is irrelevant, because the state’s public records law presumes that government records are open and available upon request. If every public records request could be approved or rejected based on the purpose of the request — whether it’s a journalist’s investigation into potential corruption or a citizen’s simple curiosity — precious little information would be released.

Yet Judge Smith practically mocked NPRI’s argument for being “based on only the general presumption of openness contained in the Nevada Public Records Act.” In other words, for being based on law. Judge Smith, on the other hand, completely misread the law in ruling the email database confidential. NRS 239B.040 allows a government to keep confidential the email addresses and telephone numbers of people who communicate with the entity — for example, if a taxpayer signs up for a recreation program or cultural activity. Incredibly, Judge Smith determined this statute applied to public employees, as opposed to the public at large, even though it clearly covers only phone numbers and email addresses provided to a governmental entity.

Teachers don’t provide their email addresses to the school district. The district — meaning taxpayers — provides the addresses to teachers.

Judge Smith ruled the public interest in having access to such records was outweighed by the school district’s interest in preventing teacher email accounts from being spammed and phished. The school district already should have information technology in place to block such email messages, and if they’re ineffective, teachers are certainly capable of deleting messages that aren’t related to classroom work.

Any ruling that attacks the public’s ability to access government business is bad policy. Without transparency, there can be no accountability. NPRI announced it will appeal Judge Smith’s ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court. Good. This poorly reasoned decision begs to be overturned.