Union Organizing Emails May Be Subject to Disclosure After State High Court Ruling

The Temple of Justice in Olympia, Washington. The state Supreme Court last week issued a ruling in a public records case related to union organizing.

The Temple of Justice in Olympia, Washington. The state Supreme Court last week issued a ruling in a public records case related to union organizing. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

A group often at odds with government labor unions says the case sets an important precedent for when correspondence about union activities is public record.

Emails related to union organizing that a professor at a public university in Washington state sent and received are not necessarily barred from disclosure under state public record laws, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The Freedom Foundation, a think tank that frequently clashes with public employee unions up and down the west coast, began its attempts to obtain the emails nearly four years ago.

A University of Washington professor, who was president of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, sent and received the sought after messages, most of which are stored on government servers.

Although the case is not over, the foundation says the latest ruling sets a clearer precedent for when correspondence about union organizing should be considered a public record.

There are about 3,800 pages of documents that the parties in the case are fighting over.

Service Employees International Union 925 has pushed back in court against the release of the emails on the grounds that many are personal and not of public concern. Disclosing them, SEIU said, would chill union organizing, restrain speech and violate privacy rights.

A trial court granted the union’s motion to block the release of most of the emails. An appeals court affirmed that ruling last year.

But last week, the state’s Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision. It said the appeals court had misapplied a legal test for determining whether the records should be restricted from release. The case will now go back to the trial court for further proceedings.

State Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens wrote the unanimous 21-page opinion, which concerns Washington state’s relatively liberal public records statutes.

Writings that contain information relating to government conduct, functions or performance, and that are “prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency,” are subject to these laws.

In the 2015 case Nissen v. Pierce County, the Washington state Supreme Court held that records a public employee prepares, saves or uses on a private cell phone can be subject to public disclosure, if the records fall within the person’s “scope of employment.” The decision outlines standards for determining when records meet this criteria.

But Stephens’ opinion explains that this “scope of employment test” only applies to writings created on personal devices. The appeals court, she wrote, erred in turning to it in the UW case.

Her opinion notes that the UW email dispute is over messages mostly stored on a government agency’s servers. It also says the appeals court applied the scope of employment test in a way that conflicts with broader reasoning in the Nissen decision.

The Freedom Foundation has argued that emails about faculty organizing likely do relate to government functions because the messages are apt to discuss issues like working conditions and the role the state plays as an employer and educator.

In their opinion, the Supreme Court judges were receptive to this argument. “We agree that many of these emails likely relate to government conduct,” the opinion said.

As the state Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court, it noted that the union still has other arguments against the release of the documents at its disposal that the lower court didn’t address in prior proceedings.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Orlando Protects Citizens During Heavy Rain Events by Optimizing Water Data Intelligence
Orlando, FL, USA
Small city of Baldwin, GA with <5K residents reduces info calls to City Hall by 50%
Baldwin, GA, USA
A large urban park creates a "connected" visitor experience with SMART.NODEs™
Sydney NSW, Australia

NEXT STORY: Why Are America’s Three Biggest Metros Shrinking?

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.