School law attorney Celynda Brashner shared a good presentation at METC 2007 entitled “Technology in the Schools: Policy, Privacy and Practical Issues for Teachers, IT and Others.” With Celynda’s permission I posted a podcast recording of her session and also shared text notes from her session at METC in February 2007. In those notes I included the following statement:


I was typing fast, so perhaps I should have stated this idea bit more clearly. The point I was trying to make is made quite succinctly in the following email footer appended to a message I received today forwarded from an Oklahoma teacher:

Under Oklahoma’s “Public Records” law, absent a specific exclusion, written communications to or from [NAME] School District employees are considered public records. E-mail communication with this correspondent may be subject to public and media disclosure upon request.

Reminders like this are important for not only teachers, but also parents and others who communicate with teachers, principals, and other school employees via email. Don’t assume an email message is going to remain private with the person to whom you are intending to send it. If a subject is touchy or sensitive, don’t address it with an email. Meet face-to-face or discuss it on the phone. Not only can email messages be readily misinterpreted (especially when they concern sensitive topics) and readily forwarded to others (intentionally or unintentionally)– they can also be subpoenaed as public records. This may happen most frequently in school contexts with students who qualify for special education and mandated accommodations, but it can happen in other contexts as well.

Don’t assume your email inbox is a space for private communications.

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3 Responses to Assume your inbox is public record

  1. […] posted today to “Assume your inbox is public record,” and he’s still wrong – this time about a different facet of the e-mail issue: […]

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    A bit of clarification:

    Thanks to some encouragement from Matthew Tabor, I’m adding this note of clarification to this post and another I wrote in September 2008 about email.

    I agree with Matthew that formal documentation by teachers of various issues and situations is very important. I am not discouraging educators from taking the time to document situations thoroughly and properly. I wanting to highlight that as teachers write an email message, a word processing document, a note by hand, or anything else, it is important to remember the public nature of the document which is being crafted. Based on the actual examples of educator emails Celynda Brashner shared in her METC 2007 session on educational legal issues, it is clear some teachers have in the past not had this perception of email. She recounted multiple examples where comments were made which were not appropriate or professional in email, messages were inadvertently sent to all recipients rather than just a colleague, etc.

    Again I want to encourage teachers to recognize the potentially public nature of email. I think this is an important and quite reasonable position to take. We need to be aware of the potential for litigation and the way the words we write can be utilized in court.

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