Email and Privacy

Which of these statements is true?

A) All of your email is private, like telephone conversations.

B) Some of your email may be public records, subject to record retention schedules, and production on request.

C) All of your email is public, under the State of Florida public records laws.

The answer is B. Your email must be treated just as you treat your paper mail. You discard messages of a transient nature and retain the official documents (if any) that are connected with the business of the University. Some of us receive (and therefore file) more business related documents than others. Committee chairs, department chairs, deans and administrators will, naturally, receive and file more paper and email official documents.

There has been much discussion, concern and confusion about this issue in recent months at UF. President Lombardi appointed an ad hoc committee to study public records laws, and record retention and their implication for email use at UF. Their findings were controversial. The specter of email search and seizure, including private communications, was raised. The president, in reacting to a public records request from the Tampa Tribune, sent email (!) to UF administrators indicating that "all email is public records." This message was then transmitted to department chairs and eventually to many faculty. The president was incorrect.

Some email "documents" are public records. Which ones? Documents made or received in connection with the official business of the University are public records. All such records are subject to "record retention schedules," which indicate how they are to be handled and when they can be destroyed. Many records of a transient nature ( "lunch today?") are classified "Retain until Obsolete," which means they can be deleted when their purpose is served. So far, all this just seems like legal codification of common sense.

Some email documents are specifically NOT public records. Messages which are specifically exempt are those dealing with research, those dealing with evaluations (student, staff or faculty), and those of a strictly personal nature not connected with University business, e.g. a shopping list for your family's dinner.

The notion that any email message might be a public record has consequences. You must retain such messages. This means that you must learn enough about your email system to electronically file messages so that they will be retained, or to print messages and retain them along with your other official University documents. This includes the documents you create and send that are official business of the University.

The difficulty in these approaches lies in interpretations of the public records laws and the potential intrusions of such laws into the productive work of the University. I receive many email messages that are not the official business of the University - product announcements, general news from off-campus, news related to my discipline. But what of general news from on-campus that is not produced in an official capacity? Some might argue that these messages are the business of the University and subject to retention. I argue they are not the official business of the University (the kind of business that would appear signed on letterhead). Email generates new kinds of communication in which lists of people post questions, musings, and, in general, congregate electronically. These discussions may or may not be research-related. What of email that is clearly private communication, but in connection with University business? To the extent that they are not exempt, are they the official business of the University? Can they be classified "retain until obsolete?" Opinions vary.

The slope is slippery here for many kinds of content. The federal government has been involved in rule making regarding email with estimates that each 100 computer users might require a retention specialist to classify, file and retain email properly. Such cannot be the intent of the taxpayers who demand that we work more efficiently. Email provides us with a marvelous tool for increasing productivity. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to continue to use it in an effective, efficient and private manner.


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Last modified: Mon Feb 13 14:58:08 1995