The Texas Public Information Act is intended to provide the public with a window into the business of government and the official acts of public officials. There are some limited restrictions on the information that may be obtained by a person requesting information. The Austin Court of Appeals’ opinion in The Austin Bulldog vs. Leffingwell deals with whether an exception to disclosure requirements for e-mail addresses of a member of the public was applicable to elected city officials to the Austin City Council when those city officials used their personal e-mail addresses for communications.
The Austin Bulldog publication had made a request for certain information from the City of Austin. The City withheld e-mail communications that were responsive due to the fact that the communications involved personal email addresses, albeit the personal email addresses of government officials. The City requested an opinion from the Attorney General’s office, which advised the City that the email communications could be withheld because they involved the personal emails of a “member of the public.” The Austin Bulldog filed suit to challenge the ruling.
The court of appeals noted that the Public Information Act does not define “member of the public,” and the court sought to construe the phrase. The Court noted that the context matters. In some contexts, the phrase might include government officials, but here, the court observed that the context puts government officials in a category outside of “members of the public” since the whole point of the Act is to provide a window into the workings of those officials by the “members of the public” who are not a part of the government. Thus, the court held that the city officials’ personal email addresses are not shielded from disclosure and must be disclosed as public information. The court’s opinion may be found here.