Forum Editor: Legislator Emails Should Be Open Records


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 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.

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  • Clairvoyant

    Yes, Van Pinnion is a homer. But he’s 100% right on this issue. This is right up there with the Feds (Congress and Senate) being exempt from Obamacare.

    Like Washington types, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Death Valley that our ND reps would author and pass a bill advocating open records laws for legislators. It would take an initiated measure.

    • Rob

      No, you’re wrong. Constituent emails, and legislator emails, should not be public record.

      • The Whistler

        I always thought it curious that the legislature created very open sunshine records for elective bodies in the state but exempted themselves. So a city council has to, and should, meet in public, but the state legislature doesn’t.

        As far as the emails go, I think constituent emails should be private. Emails between legislative folks should be public.

        Now if we can figure out how to police that we have something.

        • Rob

          Actually open meeting laws do apply to legislators. That’s why they announce their committee hearings and stuff at the end of each session.

          But you’re wrong about their emails. In that one area, because of the unique nature of the legislature, they wouldn’t be open.

  • Roy_Bean

    They don’t seem too willing to share all their sources for the stories, sometimes fairy tales, that appear in their paper. And they shouldn’t. Our legislators and the press should be able to protect their sources for the same reasons.

  • Guest

    You’re so full of it Rob. The only real reason you’re against open records for legislators is because you are the mouthpiece for some of the most backwards thinking lawmakers in the country. I’m sure there’s a long email trail of some ND legislators working with you to try to “sell” awful ideas to the public through your blog. You just don’t want people to see how close that relationship is or how much lobbying you do. Your love for open records has little to do with transparency and quite a bit more to do with your bias against higher ed. One thing is transparent, you’re a hypocrite.

    • Rob

      You know, people accused me of being a patsy for Shirvani too. They requested all sorts of emails to prove it.

      You know what they found out? No such thing is true.

      The forum is trying to protect NDSU by picking a fight with the legislature.

  • Thresherman

    If Von Pinnon and The Forum are so certain that they are on firm ground here, then they should not have a problem with any Democratic maker or party officials e-mails to the Forum being made public as well. If they feel that constituents have no expectation of privacy in e-mails t their legislators, why should the Forum then expect privacy in their communications with Democrats? I’ll willing include Republican e-mails in this, but I’m willing to bet that the Forum would much rather keep their communications with Democrats away from public scrutiny.