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Area legislators discuss proposed e-mail privacy bill


March 12, 2001

Area state legislators expressed their views to constituents Saturday on a controversial new house bill regarding privacy of government officials' Internet use.

House Bill 1083, passed by a 93-1 vote Tuesday, calls for a restriction of public access to "the electronic mail sent or received by an employee of a public agency." This provision was introduced as an amendment by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Danville, and has already met with opposition from such media trade associations as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Hoosier State Press Association.

At the Vigo County Public Library's Crackerbarrel session on Saturday, the privacy legislation was one of the big issues discussed by state representatives Vern Tincher, D-Riley; Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute; and state senators Mark Blade, D-Terre Haute; and John Waterman, D-Shelburn. Because the public did not have a chance to testify for or against House Bill 1083, Saturday's Crackerbarrel session let Wabash Valley residents ask questions or voice concerns.

Tincher expressed his support of the bill, and agreed with Thompson's reasoning that e-mail has become as widely used as telephone calls as a mode of communication. Because e-mail correspondence is similar to phone conversations, government officials, like their constituents, have the right to expect some privacy, he said.

"If you want to do a wiretap on someone's phone, you have to get a court order to do it," Tincher said.

"E-mail is more like a telephone call now. I get lots of e-mail messages now on my computer that used to be phone calls. When I get messages on the House switchboard, they're sent to me over e-mail Š As we continue into the technology world, we'll be using e-mail more and more. I don't think we should be restricting the e-mail user's right to privacy."

Kersey agreed, adding that legislators often receive unsolicited improper e-mail messages that they have no control over.

"We certainly don't want people to tap into our phones and listen to our conversations," he said. "E-mail is becoming more and more like phone calls Š We can't control all of the e-mails sent to us. Not all the e-mails are in the best of taste, and I don't think those should be publicized."

Thompson had introduced the bill based on his concerns about media outlets requesting to view the e-mail and past Internet records of all Indiana school superintendents. This follows the forced resignation last year of a Hamilton Southeastern Schools superintendent, who was accused of visiting pornographic Web sites on the Internet. If all school superintendents are subject to such an investigation, many legislators are worried that their privacy, too, could be invaded, even if they are completely innocent of such activity.

"When you have two or three [public officials] that have been abusing the electronic system, they should deal with those two officials instead of going on a big witch hunt," Tincher said.

Views on the House bill are expected to be more mixed, though, as the bill moves to the Senate. As a member of the Indiana Department of Correction committee, Waterman investigates illegal pornographic sites, such as those featuring child pornography. This helps to track down online offenders and bring them to justice, with the help of informants' tips.

Waterman said that the denial of Internet privacy for senders and receivers would keep informants from getting involved.

"A lot of times, we deal with people who give us information and a lot of times, you've got to pull [pornographic sites] up. I think it would hamper a lot of investigations [if privacy was restricted]. The folks wouldn't send you their information or correspond with you in fear of the media getting hold of it Š We need to have the willingness out there to confirm those problems and not hamper anything."

Blade, however, hesitated to support the bill, saying that he has some concerns about restricting the public's access to the e-mail of legislators.

"We're doing [e-mail] over public computers," he said. "They don't belong to us. They're paid for by taxpayer money. So, I was a little cautious about us restricting access to that information Š If it's my computer at home, that's different.

"I don't want it to look like we have something to hide either."

Most of the subject matter in e-mail correspondence over Senate bills should be open for public access unless it involves an extraordinarily sensitive matter, Blade said.

The Crackerbarrel session audience also displayed mixed opinions on the issue. Bob Mardis, of Terre Haute, believes that the legislators should be allowed their privacy.

"My general feeling is that probably, it should be private," he said. "I don't see a need to get into other people's mail and I consider e-mail to be like that. It's a two-way street. It's not only protecting the public official, but it's protecting who's on the sending end, too."

Ann Seltzer of Terre Haute, a former employee of the U.S. Department of Justice's Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Unit, says that there should be a way for public access and legislator privacy rights to coexist. Legislator e-mails released to the public should display only the relevant content with the rest being redacted, or blacked out.

"I believe you have to balance the public's right to know with the right to privacy, and you can do that," she said. "I believe e-mails have become like phone calls; however, I do believe the overriding issue is the public's right to know what our legislators are doing."

© 2001 Jason Hathaway, Tribune-Star Publishing Co. Inc.


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