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Panel clears bill to block access to state e-mails

May 10, 2001

A House panel decided Wednesday that government e-mails are just a form of Internet chat and that public officials should be able to keep them secret.

HB1894 by Rep. Edwin R. Murray, D-New Orleans, would exempt government e-mails from the state public records law even when they are transmitted to public officials through government computers purchased with public funds.

"You could have school board members getting together through e-mail, and in detail, working everything they need to work out before they ever meet in public," Jim Whittum, managing editor of The Advocate newspaper, warned the panel.

But most members of the House and Governmental Committee were more concerned about having their own e-mails open to public scrutiny.

Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, questioned whether a personal e-mail sent to his wife over his House computer should be a public record.

"If I sent my wife an e-mail saying, ‘Honey, I miss you and I love you’ -- is that open?" Gallot asked.

"That message would be more effective if you delivered it over the phone," answered Kathy Spurlock, executive editor of The News-Star newspaper in Monroe.

State law generally requires government documents to be available to the public.

Murray said he considers e-mails to be closer to telephone conversations than documents.

He noted that telephone conversations are not covered by the open-records law.

On behalf of the Louisiana Press Association, lobbyist John Koch warned that Murray’s bill is "taking a quantum leap in closing records that need to be open."

"With this, the public business can go underground, and we will have government decisions made by Internet," Koch warned.

Several committee members voiced concern about whether e-mails they receive from their constituents should be public records.

But Rep. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said Murray’s bill would create a double standard for constituents.

Well-heeled constituents with computers would be able to communicate with their lawmakers privately.

But citizens who can’t afford computers and Internet access would have to communicate by letters, which would continue to be public records, Walsworth said.

State Rep. Emile "Peppi" Bruneau, R-New Orleans, got the committee to change the bill to exempt e-mail from the public-records law only through 2003.

Bruneau said the limit would give lawmakers some "breathing room" to develop new guidelines about opening e-mails to public scrutiny.

The panel then voted 10-2 to send Murray’s bill to the full House, with only Walsworth and Rep. Mike Futrell, R-Baton Rouge, objecting.

By SCOTT DYER Capitol news bureau, Copyright © 1995-2001, The Advocate, Capital City Press


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