Governmental Entities Must Protect E-Mail Addresses
Government Code Section 552.137 states that the e-mail address of a member of the public provided for the purpose of communicating with a governmental entity is confidential and not subject to disclosure. Governmental entities must take steps to protect public e-mail addresses. An address only can be disclosed “if the member of the public affirmatively consents to its release.”
If government entities maintain e-mail addresses of persons, they must protect them and not include the e-mail addresses in records that are open to the public (i.e., web sites, appraisal lists, and other documents). Persons include private individuals and employees of businesses. E-mail addresses of governmental employees are public.
Governmental entities should take steps to protect public e-mail addresses. One option is to obtain written approval from members of the public who provide the information consenting to the release of their e-mail addresses. If a governmental entity uses a form on which an e-mail address is requested, the entity should add a disclaimer using the wording of the law. The better policy might be to avoid asking for e-mail addresses from the public on any form.
If a governmental entity receives a public information request to inspect or copy forms or other documents that include confidential e-mail addresses, and a waiver to release has not been provided, the entity should refer the request to its public information officer. If the requestor agrees to receive the public information with the e-mail addresses withheld, the public information officer can release the documents with the e-mail addresses marked out. Otherwise, the officer has 10 days to request a ruling from the attorney general about this exception to disclosure.
Governmental entities should remember that disclosure of information made confidential by law carries a criminal penalty. Distribution of confidential information is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000; up to six months in county jail; or both. It also constitutes official misconduct by the public information officer.