The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday said emails from state senators sent to University of Nebraska administrators and members of the Board of Regents are public records.
Last November, the Journal Star requested communications between state lawmakers and university policy-setters following an August confrontation between a graduate student lecturer and an undergraduate student who was recruiting for a conservative student group at UNL.
Previously, the Journal Star sought emails and voicemail messages received by NU after the incident gained widespread attention through social media, bringing a mix of support, criticism and threats to university employees.
One of the emails, which was shared with NU President Hank Bounds and was turned over to the Journal Star in an earlier request, included a message between several lawmakers indicating their interest in how NU would handle the situation.
The university denied the newspaper's November request for more emails from state senators, however, citing a provision of the state’s public-records statutes that exempts the “correspondence, memoranda, and records of telephone calls” of state senators from being disclosed.
In responding to the Journal Star's petition seeking the attorney general's position, Assistant Attorney General Natalee Hart said the university improperly applied the exemption to the state's public-records rules.
According to legislative history, then-state Sen. Vard Johnson introduced the exemption for state senators' records in 1983, saying the measure was aimed at keeping a constituent's communications with a state senator confidential.
“If a senator’s records are open to the public, this may inhibit a constituent from contacting his or her senator or from communicating with the senator candidly,” Johnson’s statement of intent from the 1983 bill reads.
Conversely, he said the exemption would protect senators who respond to their constituents from having their conversations be made public, unless they allowed it.
The exemption indicates individual senators can release the documents, if they so choose, or else the Executive Board of the Legislature can make the records public.
NU cited that part of the law — that senators would need to provide permission for the release of their records — in its denial to the Journal Star.
But the legislative history of the public-records exemption provided to state senators shows it was intended for requests made to individual senators or the Legislature as a whole, the attorney general’s office said.
“We do not believe the exception applies to correspondence written to another public body for which a public-records request is then made to that public body,” Hart wrote.
Once sent from a senator, the recipient — including state agencies — is now the custodian of the record.
“Consequently, we will request that the university release these records to you upon receipt of this letter,” the attorney general's letter concluded.
Wednesday, Bounds said administrators would discuss the attorney general’s decision with regents and the university’s legal counsel.
The university also plans to immediately begin gathering the records in response to the request, a spokeswoman said.
Journal Star Editor Dave Bundy said the newspaper would continue seeking disclosure of the public records.
“We’re gratified by the attorney general’s opinion, but until we have the emails in hand, we haven’t fulfilled our responsibility to the public,” Bundy said.