U.S. Appeals Court Rules Private Emails Not Always Exempt from FOIA

July 6, 2016

When a government official sends work-related emails over a private or personal email account, the emails are not necessarily exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, a federal appeals court ruled July 5, 2016.

The decision was handed down by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. If not overturned, it is likely to have both immediate political fallout and broader legal impact.

The case involves emails sent by White House Science Advisor John Holdren over an account established when he was director of the Woods Hole Research Center. Holdren has been an outspoken defender of climate science, and the records were sought by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Koch-funded think tank that questions climate science.

Legal arguments about the FOIA-bility of private emails have become increasingly frequent. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's emails are hardly the only example. The emails of researchers at public and private universities have been FOIA'd for inquiries related to politics, science, and scientific integrity.

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