By Scott Tibbs, August 18, 2009
Alaska Superior Court Judge Jack W. Smith ruled last week that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's use of private e-mail accounts to conduct state business was legal after a lawsuit challenged the practice. Palin had been using Yahoo Mail accounts instead of her official state e-mail, prompting the legal challenge. Judge Smith ruled that there isn't anything in state law prohibiting the use of private e-mail to conduct state business.
What Palin did may be legal, but it should not be. The Alaska legislature should act quickly to make the use of private e-mail for state business illegal. State Representative Mike Doogan introduced House Bill 195 to require that "When taking or withholding official action, a public officer may not send or cause another to send information by electronic transmission within a system for electronic mail delivery unless the system is operated and maintained by the state."
I am a supporter of Sarah Palin, but she was simply wrong here. A hallmark of our Constitutional republic is openness. All government records (with rare exceptions such as HIPPA-protected records) should be open to the public at any time for any reason. A huge part of protecting our liberty is openness of public records, so that government officials can be held accountable for what they do. Conducting official government business through private email undercuts open door laws because it would be too easy for inconvenient e-mails to "disappear" without ever being recorded as legally required. Even if it wasn't illegal, it was a huge lapse of judgment.
There is also the issue of security. One of Palin's Yahoo accounts was hacked last year during the Presidential campaign and the contents were posted on the Internet. This was an embarrassment for Palin, but also represents a huge potential liability for the state of Alaska. What if proprietary information had been posted online? What kind of liability would state government and Palin herself face if someone filed a lawsuit against the state? What of the potential damage done to third parties that have no connection to the political fights surrounding Palin?
Palin should have known better. It should be common sense that all official communications are to be handled through one's employer-provided e-mail account. As Governor, Palin set a bad example for state employees and created a problem for the state of Alaska that never should have existed. I hope she learned form this experience, especially since she is obviously preparing to run for President in 2012. She should be prepared for this to be an issue in the primaries and the general election, and convince voters that she is reliable on open-records issues.