Pennsylvania Right to Know Law applies to emails of state university professors

    The e-mails of hundreds of Pennsylvania professors at state-supported universities could be subject to public records requests like the one visited upon University of Wisconsin prof William Cronon by a Republican party official.

    That’s my conclusion after a long conversation with Terry Mutchler, director of the state Office of Open Records. (for more on the Wisconsin battle, see yesterday’s post).

    “You would be able to file a right to know request and at least theoretically be able to obtain [a professor’s] emails,” Mutchler said. “But I want to be crystal clear that it does not mean every e-mail would be released.”

    First, some distinctions about which Pennsylvania schools are in the crosshairs of the Right to Know law.

    Professors at Temple, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln are probably safe. Though they get state support, they’re specifically defined as “state-related institutions” in the law and are required to makes limited disclosures about their activities.

    But Mutchler said the law does apply to the 14 universities of the State System of Higher Education: Cheyney, West Chester, Millersville, Shippensberg, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Lock Haven, Slippery Rock, California, Clarion, Edinboro, Kutztown, Bloomsburg and Mansfield.

    She said any emails requested from a professor at one of those institutions would be evaluated based on the criteria in the open records law. What’s the criteria?

    An email could be obtained if it represents “information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that documents a transaction or activity” of the university.

    Which could mean just about anything, depending on the view of the controlling authority. If the activity of the university is the pursuit of ideas, that could presumably include anything a professor thinks or asks about.

    But I think any judge evaluating a broad email request would have to take note of exceptions to public records in another part of the law, which indicate something about the legislative intent of the act.

    A among the records exempt from the Pennsylvania law are “unpublished lecture notes, unpublished manuscripts, unpublished articles, creative works in progress, research-related material and scholarly correspondence of a community college or an institution of the State System of Higher Education or a faculty member, staff employee, guest speaker or student thereof.”

    That suggest to me that a professor could successfully resist an attempt to paw through her email unless there was a showing that they revealed some improper conduct.

    Mutchler said in effect that until there’s a test case, nobody knows how far into a professor’s inbox the Right to Know Law will take you.

    She did note that the law doesn’t take motives into account.

    “Right to know laws are used in very good ways so that citizens have access to what their government officials are doing,” Mutchler said. “But right to know laws very often can be used for harassment purposes or for witch hunts.”

    She noted that all her emails since 2008 have been sought in a right to know request from a former employee.

    “We’re going to provide as much as we can,” she said.

    You can read the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law here.

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