Utah Conversation Shifts to Closing Email to Protect You…Watch Out!

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The conversation turns from policy to politics in Utah, as the operatives see an opportunity to close e-mail for that most politically popular of reasons — the protection of constituent “privacy,” a word symbolizing much and meaning nothing.

It’s a smart political move for Utah GOP legislators to repeal the GRAMA amendments and to now push for “protections” of their own constituents’ private electronic communications with pubic officials.

So say several Republican political operatives UtahPolicy spoke with over the weekend.

“As far as I’m concerned, the only smart (GOP) officeholders are the Steve Urquharts out there who are saying – “Hey, we messed up, now let’s fix it,”” said one Republican who has been active in party politics for years.

The Republicans spoke to UtahPolicy asking that their names not be used because they still have to work with GOP legislators and party leaders.

Last Friday, as you know, the Utah House and Senate repealed HB477 – a GRAMA revision much-hated by Utahns.

And the main theme expressed in an open House GOP caucus and on the Senate floor debate (the House basically had no floor debate) was that while HB477 did do some good things, what citizens now have to understand that they are “naked” before the prying eyes of the media and other special interest groups unless GRAMA is changed.

“It’s smart,” said another GOP activist, “for lawmakers to now try to get across that constituents’ belief that their communications with their public officials are private may not be the case, and that unless (lawmakers act) they won’t remain private.”

While there is some argument about this – media attorneys, for example, say GRAMA already contains “protected” status for legislators’ and other public officials’ private communication with constituents – many legislators (even the Democrats, who nearly unanimously voted for repeal) worry about such constituent communications.

The post is quite right: it’s a shrewd move, politically. It’s also quite true that some emails between constituents and their elected officials might well be public. But….note this line:

…what citizens now have to understand that they are “naked” before the prying eyes of the media and other special interest groups unless GRAMA is changed.

Naked? Huh? What?

Let’s take a quick peek under the hood at the pertinent exemptions in the current law, courtesy of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s fabulous Open Government Guide.

So, you send an e-mail to Sen. Blowhard. Before it would be released, it would be subject to this scrutiny:

1. Does it concern  “records concerning an individual’s eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits, social services, welfare benefits, or the determination of benefit levels”

2. Does it contain “records containing an individual’s medical history”

3. Does it contain “records of publicly funded libraries used to identify a patron”?

4. Are the “records received or generated in a Senate or House ethics committee concerning any alleged violation of the rules on legislative ethics if the ethics committee meeting was closed to the public?”

5. Are there “records concerning a current or former employee of, or applicant for employment with, a governmental entity ‘that would disclose that individual’s home address, home telephone number, Social Security number, insurance coverage, marital status, or payroll deductions'”

6. You can not, under Utah public records law, reveal a person’s Social Security number.

7. And you can not release “that part of a voter registration record identifying a voter’s driver license or identification card number, Social Security number, or last four digits of the Social Security number.”

Whew! So who’s naked now? And after these exemptions are applied, what constituent-to-public official correspondence, e-mail or otherwise, should then be withheld? And what about public official-to-constituent?

Let’s not forget, such correspondence might be Grandma contacting her local council about a pothole — but it might also be a powerful regulated industry seeking favor. Or their fellow influence peddlers. This is why they’ll push so hard for a huge exemption for constituent “privacy” — because it’s extremely helpful for public official “privacy.”

An exemption for such communication that “clearly constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” as the federal FOIA does, with a public interest standard installed that could override such concerns, might do the trick.

But whenever government officials say they are out to “protect your privacy,” please understand that what they mean is “we’d like to take information that is available to you now, should you need it, and secure it for your protection.” That, my friends, is a surrender of sovereignty from the people to the government, and it should always, always be the last resort. A tad here, a tad there, and suddenly you needn’t worry, for the government is protecting you from all that scaaaaaary information…..

There are legitimate privacy interests here. Most of them are covered by the existing exemptions. The rest could be handled very neatly and narrowly. The early rhetoric (YOU ARE NAKED!) suggests otherwise.

 

 

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