Union Dos... and Don'ts
Teachers' Union Fights to Keep E-Mails Private
The Seattle Education Association (SEA), Seattle's teachers' union, has filed suit against Seattle Public Schools to block the release of e-mails they say would hurt their ability to renegotiate teachers' contracts. According to court documents, the school district received a public disclosure request on October 29 for e-mail communications between several union representatives about district contract bargaining and a grievance filed by a teacher against the union.
While the e-mails were between union members, teachers receive SEA's communications through their district e-mail. The dispute raises questions about the privacy of e-mails sent over a public system and the union's abilities to protect privileged information.
According to SEA President Wendy Kimball, e-mails between union members are sent over the district's e-mail server, but the union's contract states that the e-mails are not open to public disclosure. "If it has to do with union business," Kimball says, "we feel that we should be able to contact our members and that [should] be privileged."
Despite the union's protests—and a King County Superior Court judge's temporary ruling sealing the e-mails—the e-mails may not be so private. According to Kristin Alexander, spokeswoman for the Washington State Attorney General's Office, "E-mails sent over public computers are public," although Alexander notes that "there are certain exemptions."
Seattle Public Schools spokesman David Tucker says that the district doesn't have an agreement with SEA over server use and e-mails that come across the district's e-mail servers would be subject to public disclosure, "unless the court determines otherwise."
It's unclear who's trying to get information on the teacher's dispute with the union, or why. The teacher named in the request says he didn't ask for the e-mails, and Seattle Public Schools—which was prepared to turn over the documents—was not able to provide the name of the person who filed the request. According to Tucker, the district is an innocent bystander in the legal wrangling. "This is really a dispute between SEA and [the person who filed the public-disclosure request]," Tucker says.
According to Kimball, there will be another hearing in January.