A Gawker story from earlier this week shed light on the apparent outrage over a University of Wisconsin professor’s e-mails being public records.
In fact, all government employees (and thus all professors at state universities), are largely subject to having their documents, e-mails and salaries seen by the general public. This law, which goes by different names in different states, is most well-known by journalists, but widely used by common citizens to find out what is going on in their government.
What other documents are public records at state universities? Just about anything. The list of documents that aren’t public is much shorter.
Individual student academic, conduct and medical records are protected by a federal law. Beyond that, very few documents are allowed to be withheld by public universities.
The salaries of all university employees are public, as is the school’s budget and any documents produced by university officials. Some of the most interesting documents include travel records and expense reports. Any employee who uses a state vehicle must log its uses. And one more tip: If you can’t figure out what would be interesting to look for, most states allow you to ask a public body for a list of all document requests for a specified time period.
My newspaper, the Collegiate Times, has used these laws extensively to create a faculty salaries database for a large number of American universities. Even the University of Wisconsin is in there.