FoI in the USA: Legislature to be subject to FoI

Long-awaited legislation to subject the General Assembly to the Freedom of Information Act passed the House on Thursday night, but an amendment tacked on to the bill would shield legislators' e-mails from public scrutiny.

House Bill 1 passed on a unanimous vote and goes to the Senate for consideration.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Robert F. Gilligan, D-Sherwood Park, would make the Legislature's records and meetings open. However, party caucuses would remain closed, as would meetings of the so-called Big Head committee -- a group of legislative leaders who get together to hash out fiscal matters. The governor's weekly luncheons with legislative leaders also would remain private.

Gilligan opposed the amendment to close off public access to e-mails -- which under current legal interpretation are now considered public record -- but he said enough members wanted to keep their e-mails private that he had to concede that point to get the bill through the House.

The amendment shielding e-mails from public scrutiny was drafted by Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, who said that constituents often send legislators e-mails on intensely personal subjects.

Schwartzkopf said he did not want to see those e-mails splashed across a newspaper page, contending that there should be the same "reasonable expectation of privacy" in e-mails that one has in a telephone conversation.

Amended FOIA bill passes House: e-mails excluded from material that would be made public (Delaware Online, 20 March 2009)