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Town puzzles over Observer’s request for citizen emails

email listBy DAVID BORAKS

Updated Saturday, Jan. 22, 4:10 p.m.
Town officials in Davidson are trying to figure out how to respond to a public records request from The Charlotte Observer for email addresses and telephone numbers of citizens who subscribe to the town’s email and telephone alert services.

The request is similar to those the paper has submitted to the City of Charlotte, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) and other area towns. Because the records requests have come from the paper’s “strategic products and audience development director,” some citizens and public officials are concerned that paper might use the addresses to deliver advertisements or marketing messages.  The newspaper’s editor told Friday the paper wants the information only for “journalistic purposes.”

UPDATE: The editor said Saturday that given the outcry over the request, the paper could decide not to send emails. See “Comments” below.

Davidson sent an apologetic email to its “eCrier” email subscribers at midday Friday, warning them about the situation, and acknowledging that its policy promising confidentiality had “run afoul” of the N.C. Public Records Law. That law says all public documents, including email lists, are “the property of the people” and may be requested by citizens.

The City of Charlotte sent a similar email to its subscribers on Wednesday.

And on Thursday, CATS sent a similar email. But it notified users that “because CATS is a public enterprise organization, according to NC statues, customer information is NOT available for public records requests. As such if you are subscribed to a CATS e-mail delivery system we will NOT be providing your information.”

The warnings from city and town sources have filled some residents’ inboxes, with a message sent for each individual list someone subscribes to.


town email to ecrier users

The town sent emails to eCrier subscribers Friday.

The public records law, sometimes referred to as the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requires governments to comply with requests for public documents free or at minimal cost, in most cases.

The Observer’s records requests came from Steve Gunn, the paper’s strategic products and audience development director and a Davidson resident. Mr. Gunn is a former Observer editor who recently took on the new job outside the newsroom.

He filed his request with the Town of Davidson on Jan. 5, seeking email addresses and phone numbers for eCrier subscribers. Megan Pillow Davis, Davidson’s public information officer, said Friday the town has not yet decided how to respond.

“We haven’t yet complied with this request because the more we discuss it, the more we realize how complex this situation is and how far-reaching its implications,” she said. “We believe it’s very important to adhere to state law, but we also believe it’s important to protect the privacy of our citizens. We will make a decision about this as soon as possible and, in the interim, will keep both our citizens and the Observer updated on our progress.”

When residents sign up for or read Town of Davidson emails, they see a message promising confidentiality. But that message did not consider the possibility that a business or news organization might seek to capture email addresses using the public records law. Since receiving the request, the town’s privacy statement has been revised to add the phrase “except where required by law.”

The alerts sent Friday about the situation says, “We do believe … that preserving your privacy is very important. As a result, we are consulting with our attorney and exploring all options for replying to this request.”

Ms. Davis did not say when the town might make a decision about the Observer’s request.


Davidson Commissioner Laurie Venzon said Friday the town’s eCrier system is “an efficient and effective” communications tool, but if email addresses aren’t kept private, it could be damaging.

“If we are going to be required to release email addresses to anyone who makes a public records request, it will drastically impede our ability to effectively communicate with our citizens,” Ms. Venzon said. “Quite frankly, people are not going to want to sign up, knowing that anyone can come in and get their email addresses.”

Davidson Commissioner Margo Williams said the Freedom of Information Act is an important tool of democracy. “But I don’t think the people who created this law and passed it on our behalf conceived that public information also consisted of marketing and advertising purposes,” she said.

Ms. Venzon said the town hasn’t made any decisions about The Observer’s request, “until we understand the options we have.”

In Cornelius, Commissioner Jim Bensman sent a message to constituents Thursday with the subject line: “The Observer is after your email address.” He said he believes the emails will be used for marketing purposes and has taken his name off the lists. “Personally, I elected to remove myself because I don’t want my email address to be used this way. I consider this an outrageous use of the Freedom of Information Act,” Mr. Bensman wrote.

He told the subscribers to his list: “They don’t have a right to my email list but if you are on other lists, beware.”


Rick Thames, The Charlotte Observer’s editor, said Friday the request was merely part of the paper’s reporting activities, “We don’t know what we would do with them. We only asked for them for journalistic purposes,” he said. “We request to look at a lot of public records and until you see the public records, you don’t know what the value is until you see them. A lot of the public records we look at, we don’t do anything with them,” he said.

But he acknowledged the paper might use the addresses to solicit participants in its Carolinas Public Insight Network, an effort to involve readers with the paper and its reporting on major issues. [On Saturday, he posted a comment on his blog saying that if it seemed citizens did not welcome that idea, the paper wouldn’t send any emails. See comments below.]

About 1,500 people have signed up for the network since it began last year. The paper taps network members for comment on stories they have some knowledge or connection to. “They’ve talked to us about problems with foreclosures, concerns about schools, issues they’ve had with crime – a whole range of issues that people have been helpful with,” Mr. Thames said.

He also said the paper has considered asking email subscribers for their opinions on “how well this government service is working for them. We might poll them and invite them to rate email delivery as a means of keeping up with the government.”

The Observer won’t republish or redistribute the email addresses it obtains, Mr. Thames.

[In a Friday night post on his Inside Story blog, Mr. Thames late Friday defended the paper’s decision to go after citizen emails. He said the paper wanted to examine the lists before a potential legislative change (requested by the City of Charlotte, among others) made them off-limits.]

“In hindsight, we should have been clearer as we made our requests, and we apologize for raising concerns,” he worte.

Commissioners Bensman and Williams said they think The Observer’s public records request strays from the intent of the Freedom of Information law.

Mr. Thames said for The Observer this request “might be somewhat different.” But, he added, “Businesses use public records all the time. We shouldn’t be naive about that.”

“What I would do is encourage the citizens to know when they sign up for emails that email addresses in the possession of the city are in the public record,” Mr. Thames said.


Jan. 21, 2011, WFAE-FM/, “Observer taps city, county email distribution lists.” – WFAE’s Julie Rose reports on the issue, including an interview with Observer editor Rick Thames.

Jan. 21, 2011, Charlotte Observer Inside Story blog (editor Rick Thames), “Email lists used only for journalism.”

Download a copy of the Observer’s request to Davidson (PDF), CLICK HERE>

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This site has a strict privacy policy that pledges not to share readers’ email or personal information with third parties. Since we’re not a government agency, we would not be subject to a public records request like the one in this article.]


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David Boraks is the founder and editor of Davidson News LLC, which started in 2006 as a neighborhood blog and evolved into a regional community news network. He is a print, magazine, web and radio journalist, with experience in every nook and cranny of the news world, covering everything from local news to Fortune 100 companies to technology to Asia. He lives on South Street in Davidson, in a house that was at the center of a 1914 murder case. Ask him and he'll tell you that story.

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12 Responses to “Town puzzles over Observer’s request for citizen emails”

  1. Alan Martin says:

    I am outraged that the Obsever would abuse an important piece of legislation like the Freedom of Information Act for commercial purposes rather than legitimate journalistic purposes. They have my phone number and email address because I have been a subscribed for nearly 20 years. However, I called the Publisher and Vice-presidents of Circulation and Advertising today to inform that I intend to cancel my subscription unless they withdraw this request. Perhaps enough calls from like-minded subscribers will have an impact. Doubtful, but perhaps.
    Alan Martin

  2. Sara-Lynne Levine says:

    This is an outrageous request from The Charlotte Observer. This is not what the FOI Act or the public records law was intended for and is “journalism” in its laziest form. If the Observer is seeking the names and contact information of Davidson residents “to solicit participants in its Carolinas Public Insight Network, an effort to involve readers with the paper and its reporting on major issues” they should do their own legwork obtaining contact information, not stand behind the public records law and cry out Freedom of the Press.
    The intent of the eCrier and other programs like it, is to insure accurate and timely communications from the town to its citizens. Residents signed up with this in mind and never expected their information to be given away. The Observer should be ashamed of itself and should go back to school to learn the basics of honest journalism. Bravo to the town for protecting its citizen’s privacy. This is a fight worth fighting.

    Sara-Lynne Levine is the former communications director for the Town of Davidson. She now lives in Ontario.

  3. Hans Diessel says:

    The Observer addresses the issue in an editorial blog today. I have submitted the following comment:

    The point that the Observer may have the legal right to the e-mail subscription lists of local governments (like in my case for Davidson’s eCrier) does not justify its bullying and self-serving behavior. Mr. Thames claims that the Observer will not use these e-mail lists for spam – but wouldn’t sending unsolicited e-mails about the Observer’s “Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network” be just that: spam? I am appalled at the Observer’s willingness to disrespect the privacy of the subscribers to local government information services, which to me casts an unexpected shadow over the Observer’s journalistic integrity.
    Hans Diessel

  4. Robert Maier says:

    There are many good reasons for the Observer’s request. First is an how effective is government/citizen electronic communication? Is it efficient, costly, intrusive, does it reach enough people, is it accurate. What specifically does the government do with this info? I’d like to know if my tax dollars are effective in its communications. I’m sure government email and robocalls cost something? Next, the Observer may want to reach active citizens, and people who subscribe to such lists may be active citizens. There’s nothing wrong with receiving an unsolicited e-mail from a reputable organization. Laws today are very good about opting out. You get junk mail everyday. I just toss it in the re-cycle bin. Can’t opt out of it. To be “outraged” that the Observer is only interested in selling your email address suggests a bigger agenda– mainly a desire to muzzle free speech. Most government agencies fear the press, because they prefer not having their questionable or bad policies and practices aired to the public. Others see all journalism as a liberal plot to take over the world (e.g. Sarah Palin and many of her supporters) and want to de-legitimize an muzzle the press at every opportunity. They like secrecy, inaccountability, and all the other economic and social advantages enjoyed by dictators, autocrats, and oligarchs when a press is effectively muzzled like Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, China, etc. I’d prefer getting a single opt-out email from the Observer over allowing the government to restrict access to public records.

  5. Rodney Graham says:

    If a government has a collection of citizens e-mail addresses, then that information needs to be publicly available. I am not suggesting our elected officials would do this, but one can imagine a scenario where a government official has access to these e-mail addresses and uses them for political benefit, but that same access is denied to political opponents under the guise of privacy.

    One can easily find out where I live, the size of my house, how much we paid for it, and many other things that I would consider to be more private than my e-mail address ( for all those just dying to find out). This is part of the territory of living in a democratic, open society where open records laws exist ultimately to protect citizens. I would imagine that many who are complaining about this request have Facebook pages where they’ve posted photos of themselves and their families, and provided information that is much more personal than their e-mail address.

    I would be curious to know if the opens records laws extend to MI-Connection, since it is owned by the governments of Davidson and Mooresville. My recollection is not, but it would be of interest to know whether the viewing habits of subscribers could become part of an opens records request.

  6. Rick Short says:

    If the Observer wants to do an analysis of the cost effectiveness of something like the eCrier, a much better and less offensive way to do this would be to simply ask for the number of subscribers. An even better request would be a request for the actual content of email and phone messages sent by the Town so they could categorize what types of messages and information was being distributed. Finally, if they want to know who’s actually active in local issues the best way to do that would be to request the minutes and attendees to local meetings. Those requests would qualify as having some journalistic purpose. Instead the Observer cheapens (rather than protects) the practice of journalism by using “journalistic purposes” as cover for an obvious marketing program.

  7. David Boraks says:

    Interesting questions, Rick. The Observer apparently is getting 20,000 email addresses from the City of Charlotte.

    In Davidson, the town communications director was unable to say Friday afternoon how many unique email addresses are on its eCrier lists. We do know that there are a total of 8,786 email addresses (many duplicates) on 14 lists, which cover topics such as planning, trash pickup schedules, Town Board news, and public safety.

  8. David Boraks says:

    I was in on a discussion of this topic Saturday morning at a Society of Professional Journalists meeting in Charlotte, with counterparts from various Charlotte news outlets, including the Observer.

    This is a difficult issue for journalists. We are big users and advocates for public-records laws and government transparency, and we naturally have a stake in this, we agreed. Beyond that, I’d say there wasn’t a consensus.

    One blogger suggested we should all file identical requests, to make a point to local governments about the importance of open records. An investigative reporter in the group thinks we need to be suspicious of any efforts to limit access to public records. He noted, as The Observer’s Steve Harrison reported on Jan. 3, that the City of Charlotte plans to ask the N.C. legislature to make it more difficult to get email lists. (As proposed, the new limits would not remove names on email lists entirely from public view. You’d still be able to examine them by hand. But marketers wouldn’t have access to an electronic copy of the list that could be easily used for marketing.)

    But others in our discussion wondered if there isn’t something different about this one, and whether it could give the paper – and our business – a bit of a black eye. What public good is gained from obtaining citizens’ email addresses? Could this hurt efforts to defend the public-records law?

    Meanwhile, would our opinions be any different if the city and town email warnings informed us that a non-journalistic business – call it “XYZ Mega-Marketing” – made the request? Is the Observer acting here as journalistic enterprise, or more like a business that wants to reach potential readers and customers?

    Plenty of room left for discussion about this one.

  9. David Boraks says:

    Mr. Thames has replied to comments on his Charlotte Observer blog. On Saturday morning, he now says the paper may not use citizens email after all:

    “While we think many people who are on the lists would find this appealing, we have many other ways of reaching them. And if we find that using these lists as a resource is not welcomed in general, we won’t do it.”

    Read the comment:

  10. Hans Diessel says:

    In response to Robert Maier and Rodney Graham: The importance of having and using the Freedom of Information Act as a democratic check on our institutions is unquestioned. What needs to be questioned here, I think, is the motivation of the Observer in requesting citizens’ e-mail addresses, and whether the Observer’s probable legal right to do so is enough to justify the violation of the citizens’ interest in the privacy of their e-mail addresses.

  11. Rodney Graham says:

    I think the Observer’s intention was to make a request for this information before access to it possibly became restricted because of the City of Charlotte’s efforts. Perhaps they were trying to make a point that any information a government collects about or from its citizenry is public information (sensitive national security information at times notwithstanding). Perhaps it was just a lazy way to get a bunch of e-mail addresses. My comment had less to do with the Observer’s motives and more to make a point that public information is just that, public.

    I agree at times the motives of those seeking information under public disclosure laws can be called into question. The mayor of our neighbor to the north is now in a bit of Mark Sanfordesque trouble because a reporters request for the emails sent from his government account show that he was carrying on a relationship outside of his marriage. I’m not sure what public interest is served by revealing that, but I am sure that the e-mails of public officials should be available to the public.