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 DavidsonNews.net 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.
WILL TOWN COMPLY?
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.”
NEWSPAPER CITES NEWSGATHERING IN REQUEST
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/WFAE.org, “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>