SEJ Joins in Suit on Officials' E-mails

May 7, 2008

The question of whether the e-mail messages of government officials are public records is being hotly debated on many fronts today - the White House being the one getting the most headlines. Many reporters use e-mail messages obtained by FOIA requests or other means as the basis for high-impact stories about government corruption or malfeasance.

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) joined other journalism groups May 6, 2008, in filing a "friend of the court" brief in a Washington state lawsuit seeking access to public officials' e-mails under state law.

The case, Building Industry Association of Washington vs. Pat Mccarthy, Pierce County Auditor, and Pierce County, Washington, is currently before the Washington Supreme Court.

SEJ was joined in the amicus brief by the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, and Washington State Association of Broadcasters.

The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) seeks to overturn a trial court order dismissing the claim that Pierce County unlawfully destroyed e-mails it requested under the Washington state Public Records Act.

"As numerous news stories illustrate, a government's e-mails can show that concerns were ignored, that pressures were exerted, or even that lies were told - aspects of the public's business that do not pop out of press releases," the journalism groups argued in their brief. "If the voter-approved Public Records Act, ... is to function as voters intended, it must be interpreted to protect public access to e-mails."

At issue before the Washington Supreme Court is whether the burden of proof is on the government or the record-requester to justify why information should be withheld.