Jeb Bush releases eight years' worth of emails: Is that legal?

In a bid for greater transparency, the former Florida governor has released emails sent to him throughout his time in office. Was it a good idea – or one that may put some past constituents at risk?

Paul Sancya/AP Photo/File
In this Feb. 4, 2015 file photo, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a Economic Club of Detroit in Detroit. On Tuesday, Bush launched a site that released a mass of online correspondence he received and sent while he was in office.

On Tuesday, Jeb Bush, “in the spirit of transparency,” released a mass of emails sent to him during his time as Florida governor.

Many of the emails are the stuff of public record, and “would have surfaced anyway due to sunshine laws and nosy journalists,” as The Christian Science Monitor put it.

Indeed, most of Mr. Bush’s emails came with a disclaimer: “Most written communications to or from state officials regarding state business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your e-mail communications may therefore be subject to public disclosure.”

That means making the emails public are legal under Florida’s “incredibly broad” public records laws, says Jon L. Mills, Dean Emeritus and professor at the University of Florida’s Center for Governmental Responsibility.

But some messages were personal appeals that included intimate details of people’s lives, medical and employment information, and even Social Security numbers – none of which were redacted, according to BuzzFeed News, which perused eight years’ worth of emails.

That's when it can get tricky, according to Prof. Mills: Social Security numbers in particular are matters of public record only in very specific instances, such as when it is required by state or federal law or a court order. 

In one of the emails Bush released, a man who served in the US Navy included his mother’s name and Social Security number in a plea to have his mother’s record expunged after she made a mistake while service “in the medical field as an Assistant [sic].”

Another email, reported by tech news site The Verge, described a child with a life-threatening medical condition and revealed the child’s and mother’s names, and the mother’s phone number, Social Security number, and healthcare identification number.

Bush's spokesperson, Kristy Campbell, told BuzzFeed that the emails on the site are "an exact replica of the public records on file with the Florida Department of State and are available at anyone’s request under Chapter 119 sunshine laws," but that they will "take a look at anything flagged."

Time reporter Zeke Miller, who spent the afternoon interviewing the former governor on education reform, gave a similar report: 

Bush’s actions opens the door to yet another discussion on privacy rights and freedom of information.

He’s definitely received points for turning transparent: Earlier this year, Washington Post columnists Aaron Blake and Chris Silliza called his strategy “genius” because “staking out ground as the ‘most transparent candidate to ever run for president’ works at both the messaging and strategic levels,” they wrote.

“The reality of modern politics (and modern journalism) is that everything eventually comes out,” they continued. “Jeb is playing the transparency card right – and at the right time.”

That may be true for information on the governor himself. But UFL’s Mills points out that disclosure of lots of electronic information on a lot of different people, as Bush did with, can be very problematic.

As The Verge puts it:

Obviously one of the lessons here is that you shouldn't email information to public officials that you want to keep private, at least not in Florida. But even if these emails are broadly subject to disclosure under the state's sunshine law, it's concerning that such a huge, indiscriminate data dump could include so much personal information. At minimum, it shows a serious ignorance of the volume of sensitive information in the records and a carelessness about their disclosure — not a good look for someone who called himself the first "eGovernor," let alone a man who may want to sit in the White House.

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