When lawmakers learned last year that the Laramie Boomerang had filed a records request for emails between university students and their student senate representatives about a proposal to allow guns on campus, they cringed and immediately moved to action, taking on the state’s public records law.
Members of an eight-person task force on digital privacy at first wanted to make all student emails private, even the ones that pertained to public matters, even the ones between students and their representatives or administration.
The decision -- which came under the guise of protecting student privacy -- would have made Wyoming the first state in the country to offer such blanket exceptions to its Sunshine Law.
To be sure, such a law would have had chilling consequences for government transparency and accountability. But worse, it would have been totally unnecessary, as the state’s public record law already excludes the sort of emails lawmakers were concerned about -- namely, those between students and faculty that have nothing to do with public business.
Fortunately for taxpayers, though, after talking to public records advocates, lawmakers seemed to realize this. They introduced a bill this week that’s toned-down and scaled-back language is a vestige of the political chest thumping and posturing from before.
But it’s still not enough.
The new bill seeks to exclude all student-to-student and all student-to-non-school-account emails, regardless of content.
While this would be an improvement -- potentially leaving open some student-to-administrator or student-to-faculty communications -- it has the potential to dramatically hinder the public’s and press’ ability to oversee the state’s only four-year public university.
Furthermore, the current version of the bill would completely preclude student media organizations from using the public records act to hold their student representatives accountable.
If, say, a student senator is communicating about cutting funds to the school newspaper because of unfavorable coverage -- which has happened over the years at different schools around the country -- the student news organization would be hamstrung in its ability to investigate.
The same would be true for other groups on campus, as student governments typically handle and distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds to on-campus organizations.
What sort of message does that send to future leaders?
Blanket rules like these often come with unintended consequences of which we need to be wary.
Should we care about student privacy? Definitely.
But right now, unless it’s an email related to official public business, like, say, allowing guns on campus, the type of messages worthy of concern are already private.
The decision to seal off emails might be a solution to handling some of the ambiguity in the current law, but if that’s the case, it’s a misdirected solution that would come at a very real public expense.
Instead of lasering in on the messenger, we should be focused on the message and whether knowing is in the public’s interest.
And whenever we make changes to the public records law, especially changes that limit rather than expand public access, it’s crucial to tread lightly.
And as a rule, I say let the light shine in.