Thursday, March 28, 2013 | 5:32 p.m.
Are teacher email addresses a matter of public record?
That's the question at the crux of Nevada Policy Research Institute's latest lawsuit against the Clark County School District. The lawsuit was filed Thursday morning.
In June 2012 and again this February, the libertarian think tank submitted formal requests with the district for a list of email addresses for nearly 18,000 Clark County schoolteachers.
NPRI communications director Victor Joecks argues teacher email addresses are public records. Joecks said NPRI was not interested in the content of teacher emails – just the addresses.
"These are government-provided emails addresses, provided to government employees to do their government jobs," Joecks said. "It's public information. The School District doesn't get to act as a gatekeeper to public information."
The School District has repeatedly refused to grant NPRI's requests for a directory of teacher email addresses, arguing it is not a matter of public record.
School District email addresses are part of an employee's personnel records and therefore must be "safeguarded," district attorneys stated in letters to NPRI.
Additionally, the email directory "falls within the definition of a non-record given that it is similar to a book or pamphlet," district attorneys said. Nevada's public records laws don't apply to "non-records," which include "books and pamphlets printed by a government printer."
The district has received several requests from textbook companies and political groups in the past for teacher email addresses but has refused all of them, spokeswoman Melinda Malone said.
"Providing a list of employee e-mail addresses to any organization that does not conduct official business with our teachers would be a misuse of these email accounts and would allow countless businesses and organizations to continuously solicit district teachers through their work email," the district said in a statement.
Basically, "we don't want our teachers inundated with spam," Malone said.
The School District's "acceptable use" policy for work email does not specify whether email addresses are public information. However, district policy states district officials cannot inspect or disclose the content of teachers' email without consent or unless the district is required to do so by local, state or federal officials.
"Electronic mail is not private," the district policy states. "As with written communication, users should recognize there is no expectation of privacy for electronic mail."
The Clark County School District website does not feature a directory of teacher email addresses, but some of the district’s 357 school websites list principal and teacher email addresses.
The Washoe County School District's website does not feature a centralized directory for its nearly 4,000 certified employees. However, some of its 93 school websites list email addresses for educators, such as principals, teachers and librarians.
The Carson City School District's website lists email addresses for all of its 480 teachers, as well as administrators and support staff, including custodians.
Barry Smith, president of the Nevada Press Association, argues the public must have access to teachers' email addresses. Smith has testified several times before the Legislature as an expert on open-meeting and public records laws.
Teacher email addresses are considered public records, Smith contends, because the School District is supported by taxpayer money, which goes into administering and maintaining teacher email addresses and accounts.
"Nevada law states you can't withhold public records unless there is an exemption in the law," Smith said. "There is no such exemption here.”
As for the district’s contention it doesn’t want its teachers inundated with unwanted emails, Smith said, “Spam is something we all have to put up with."
The debate over the transparency of public officials' and employees' emails is not new.
In 2011, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in Reno Newspapers Inc. vs. Gibbons that the content of government officials’ emails – in this case those of former Gov. Jim Gibbons – was subject to the state's public records law.
As a result, about a hundred emails from Gibbons' work account were released to the Reno Gazette Journal, which was investigating whether Gibbons used state money for an alleged affair.
This legislative session, Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Reno, introduced Assembly Bill 251, which seeks to make public the email addresses of government boards and committees.
Hansen apparently encountered trouble reaching members of the Sage Grouse Council, which is overseeing efforts to avoid new federal protections for an endangered bird.
Although it is irrelevant to its public records request, NPRI plans to use the teacher email directory to contact teachers about their union membership, Joecks said.
NPRI infuriated teachers union officials last summer when it sent several email blasts to 12,000 teachers, informing them of their option to drop their union membership. The Clark County Education Association, which like many unions nationally, has been experiencing a decline in membership in recent years.
Under their contract with the School District, teachers have the right to opt out of the union via a written notice between July 1 and July 15 each year. Union officials did not return calls for comment on the lawsuit.
School District officials did not know how NPRI was able to gain access to the 12,000 teachers' work email addresses but surmised NPRI scanned school websites and directories and data-mined any posted email addresses using a computer program. NPRI would not say how it compiled the email list.
Thursday's lawsuit is not NPRI's first against the Clark County School District.
In August 2012, NPRI sued the district, alleging School Board members violated the Nevada open meeting law concerning the district's tax initiative for school improvements. NPRI agreed to voluntary dismiss the case after voters overwhelmingly rejected the property tax increase in November.
There is no court date set yet for NPRI's most recent lawsuit; however, Joecks said he was hopeful the district still would grant the records request. If not, the School District will likely use taxpayer money to fight to keep teacher email addresses private.
"The Clark County School District has been one of the worst government agencies we've worked with to fulfill public records requests," Joecks said. "I hope this lawsuit serves as a wakeup call for the district. It's time for them to stop delaying and denying public records requests."