June 13, 2013

House gives preliminary OK on keeping email addresses private

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- The Maine House on Monday approved a proposal that would prohibit public disclosure of email addresses of residents who sign up to receive notifications from government organizations.

The bill, L.D. 104, originated from a controversy in Falmouth, where a frequent critic of town officials obtained thousands of email addresses through a Freedom of Access Act request and then used the addresses during a failed campaign to end the town's Metro bus service. Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, said the bill was designed to prevent that from happening again.

An amended version of the bill was unanimously approved in the House. If enacted, it will shield from the state's open-records law the email addresses of citizens who sign up for town or state notices such as meeting cancellations, governmental meeting notices or road closures.

The exemption is designed to be narrowly tailored to "noninteractive" communications from governmental agencies. The email addresses of people communicating with town officials will still be subject to the state's Freedom of Access Act.

On Monday, Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, attempted to amend the bill to shield the email addresses of recipients of government newsletters, an exception included in the original proposal.

The House overwhelmingly defeated the amendment, 116-27, in a preliminary vote on Monday.

Moriarty argued that newsletters are noninteractive and no different from meeting notices.

Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, said shielding email addresses on newsletters would give town officials an unfair advantage in releasing potentially policy-related material that could influence public opinion. Priest argued that the public should know who is receiving the newsletters.

The original version of the bill caused concern among advocates of the state's so-called sunshine law because it could open the door to limit additional public information.

The issue has divided the Right to Know Advisory Committee, which is composed of members of the media and state and municipal government officials.

Some committee members are sensitive to concerns from town officials that political operators are using the freedom of access law to obtain emails for political purposes and inundating local officials with requests. Such was the case in Falmouth, when resident Michael Doyle, an outspoken critic of town government, obtained approximately 3,000 email addresses through a records request. Doyle then used the emails to advocate for the termination of the publicly funded bus services in Falmouth.

The bill requires additional votes in the Senate and House.

Steve Mistler -- 620-7016
Twitter: @stevemistler

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