Forum Editor: Legislator Emails Should Be Open Records

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Fargo Forum editor Matt Von Pinnon, last seen wishing crappy cell phone coverage on western North Dakota, continues the paper’s proud tradition of being total homers for all things NDSU with an editorial calling legislators hypocrites because open records laws don’t apply to their emails.

“When a North Dakota legislator wants to dig into a year’s worth of written correspondence of a university president, he files an open records request, obliging the president to turn over what he has,” writes Von Pinnon. “But if that same university president wanted to dig into even a day’s worth of correspondence from that same state lawmaker, the legislator could outright ignore that request.”

He says legislators should “do the right thing and remove the open records exemptions for themselves.”

This talking point started earlier this week when NDSU President Dean Bresciani himself sought to deflect scrutiny over his deleted emails by suggesting that he was the victim of a nefarious plot between unnamed legislators and unnamed university system employees (the latter of which he accused of hacking his computer, a claim that’s now been dismissed as untrue).

After Bresciani floated it, his friends at the Forum picked up the ball and ran with it. These would be the same people who, in an editorial earlier this week, ranting about “real” and “in the trenches journalism.”

But here’s the thing: There’s are excellent reasons why legislator emails are subject to open records request. For one, the legislative branch is our most important branch of government. They make the laws, often tackling extremely thorny issues, and should be afforded avenues of communication free of constant public scrutiny where they can discuss things openly. But, more importantly, the legislators are elected of the people and count on emails from their constituents to make their decisions.

If legislator emails were open to records requests, how many constituents would be willing to open up to their representatives on the most important and controversial issues? Would you email your legislator if you knew your neighbor or your boss could file a request and read what you wrote? What’s next, open records requests for the ballots we cast too?

Let’s be clear: The exemption for legislative emails was never a problem for the folks at the Forum until they needed an issue to use as a distraction. Von Pinnon’s editorial is not just disingenuous, it’s embarrassing.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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