University e-mail can be subpoenaed

Andrew Hampp

Anything you say in a e-mail can, and will, be used against you in a court of law.

That’s right — all your university-provided e-mails are considered public record by the Ohio Public Records Act, which states, “All records maintained by a governmental agency that are necessary to the agency’s execution of its duties are public records.”

But fear not, worried students — the majority of your e-mails are protected under another ordinance, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which states that only a student’s “directory information” can be made public. This information, available on’s E-mail & Phone Directory, includes your name, e-mail address, home and local addresses, major and local phone number.

Otherwise, students’ e-mails are safe from public records requests, said Greg Seibert, director of security and compliance.

“The university cannot release your GPA, what classes you are enrolled in, certain honors you’ve received or classes you’ve failed,” he said. “Any conversation you have with a professor about failing a course that identifies you and identifies the course is protected by FERPA.”

Filing a public records request is just as simple as clicking on the online directory. Unlike other states’ public-records acts, Ohio only requires that a records request be made verbally and not necessarily in writing.

However, most public agencies ask that the request be made in writing, said David Ochmann, an associate attorney in University Counsel.

“It adds clarity (to the request),” he said. “That way we’re able to look at exactly what they want.”

Although requests to see specific e-mails are “rare,” according to Ochmann, when one is filed, the person whose information is being requested is then contacted by University Counsel.

Once a request has been completed and returned to the person who filed it, some of the content may be redacted, or blacked out by a permanent marker. Ochmann defines redactable information as anything not contained on a disciplinary record, such as social security numbers.

“We had a request a few years back for discrimination complaints, but there were FERPA complications (in the request),” he said. “The registrar found themselves getting two feet of files that had to be redacted prior to the review. We went through the files (with the person filing the request), and they picked out what they wanted.”

If an e-mail cannot be subjected to a public records request, Seibert said not to forget the possibility of other legal consequences.

“If you’re doing something naughty,” he said, “and you don’t want to be reviewed by anyone in the university, those e-mails are only subject to a subpoena.”

Ochmann also urged the university community to exercise caution with all forms of electronic communication.

“No one should ever write an e-mail thinking no one can ever get to it,” he said. “If it’s not covered under the Ohio Public Records Act, it’s more than likely covered under a subpoena.”

Senior applied-math major Corby Shaw was surprised to hear that his Kent State e-mails were considered public records.

“That’s crazy,” he said. “I’m glad it was brought to my attention. I’ll probably use (my Kent State account) for business now.”

Seibert said students like Shaw have no reason to worry about the university going through each and every one of their e-mails.

“We’re not here snickering about people’s foibles,” he said. “We can pull up and see people’s subject lines. From there, we can contact the owner and say, ‘For some reason, this e-mail is bombing the system. Is it OK if we open it?’”

Seibert considers Kent State e-mail accounts to be safer than those offered by outside hosts like AOL and Yahoo.

“I don’t view any of those accounts as being especially secure,” he said. “I use (my Kent State address) for everything, and I’m entirely comfortable with it. (Even if you use AOL), if you’re doing something illegal, it’s still subpoena-able.”

Contact Features editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected].