Public official’s private email addresses must be released under the Public Information Act.

The Austin Bulldog v. Lee Leffingwell, Mayor, et al. 03-13-00604-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, April 8, 2016)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the Austin Court of Appeals held, as a matter of first impression, that the personal email addresses of council members cannot be redacted from public documents.

The Austin Bulldog (“Bulldog”) made a PIA request for information contained within emails. The City officials produced responsive documents, including responsive emails which contained public business but were sent/received from the officials’ personal email accounts. While the City released the responsive emails, it redacted the email addresses from the private accounts after receiving an opinion from the Texas Attorney General. Pursuant to Tex. Gov’t Code §552.137(a) the email address of “a member of the public” can be redacted from public documents. The Bulldog sued seeking the full set of email addresses. However, the trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment.

The court held a “member of the public” is not defined by the PIA, or any other Texas statute. And while the court agreed that the plain and common meaning of “member of the public,” is simply “someone belonging to the community as a whole” they disagreed that it is the plain and common meaning in the context of the PIA. Without much reference to standards of statutory construction but by reference to cases involving police, the court held when used in context with another category or group of people (i.e. the governmental body), whether specifically identified or simply understood, “member of the public” is a shorthand way to identify someone who does not belong to the governmental body. As a result, the email addresses must be released. In a footnote, the court noted “[b]ecause it is not before us on the facts of this case, we do not address whether a member of a governmental body who communicates electronically with that entity outside of his governmental capacity would be part of that entity for purposes of section 552.137.” In other words, the court is saying that a public official who utilizes his/her private email for only private purposes, may still be able to shield it from disclosure, but the instant the official uses it to conduct public business, all bets are off.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Rose, Justice Pemberton and Justice Bourland. Opinion by Chief Justice Rose. The attorney listed for the Bulldog is Mr. Bill Aleshire.  The attorneys listed for the City Defendants are Danley Cornyn, Mr. James E. Cousar and Ms. Karen Kennard.

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