Toward the end of last week, Crotonblog sent e-mails to the Mayor and Trustees inquiring about the mysterious e-mail that Maria Cudequest wanted withheld from Crotonblog’s view. After a reasonable interval during which no acknowledgment or reply was received from any of the five recipients, Crotonblog sent a second e-mail containing six questions. We reproduce that document here:
To the Mayor and Trustees of the Village of Croton-on-Hudson: Crotonblog understands that on or about October 19, 2007, Maria Cudequest sent an identical communication to five Village officials. Crotonblog understands that this e-mail had the stated intention of discouraging communications between said officials and Crotonblog, namely contributions to Crotonblog in the form of public service articles or comment. Crotonblog is considering doing a story about this “secret” communication sent by Maria Cudequest to Village officials containing a paragraph restricting its dissemination to the five recipients. This raises the question of whether a citizen has the privilege of sending a communication to a Croton official at the Village’s e-mail address and at the same time restricting access of other citizens to said communication. In short, does the Village recognize that some communications to public officials may be classified by the sender as “Secret” and not available to other citizens? The purpose of this e-mail is to ask you, the Mayor, and the Village Trustees individually and/or collectively for a statement about the Village’s policy with respect to such restrictive communications and for your answers to the following questions: 1. Does the Village have a policy of keeping certain public documents or communications from public view?
2. Does the Village have levels of openness or secrecy—i.e., categories such as Top Secret, Secret, Confidential, and Restricted for communications and documents?
3. If so, at what level does Ms. Cudequest’s communication repose?
4. What efforts must Crotonblog make to ascertain the contents of Ms. Cudequest’s communication?
5. Does a citizen have the privilege of restricting the access of other citizens to documents communicated over public channels to public officials?
6. If so, what part of New York State’s Public Law requires that public officials abrogate the public’s right to know about a public communication by reason of the sender’s self-imposed restriction of dissemination of that communication? A previous inquiry on this subject has gone unacknowledged or answered. We urge you to regard the present inquiry with the seriousness the Freedom of Information issue deserves. (signed) The editors of Crotonblog
The matter of the Cudequest e-mail is beginning to take on political overtones. Two trustees, Ann Gallelli, who had been on the West Coast, and Charlie Kane, eventually acknowledged Crotonblog’s e-mails. But the Mayor and the two Republican Trustees failed to acknowledge or reply to our two querying e-mails, throwing into question their campaign platform plank promising “open government.” Ms. Gallelli’s response expressed the thought that the six questions raised by our second e-mail should probably be referred to the Village Attorney for an opinion.
Ownership of an e-mail communication is at the heart of the matter. In the days before electronic communication over the Internet, ownership of a letter was quite clear. Upon receipt through the mails or by other delivery means, a letter became the property of the recipient. Under the Copyright Law, if course, the words—or rather the order in which the words were written in the letter—remained the property of the letter writer. With the advent of the Internet, however, the matter of ownership suddenly became complicated.
Much depends, of course on the wording of the agreement made between the originator of an e-mail communication and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) with whom the e-mail letter writer has an account. Many persons who unthinkingly checked the box labeled “I accept” at the bottom of their service agreement may be surprised to learn that neither the letter writer nor the recipient owns the e-mails originated under their service agreement. Instead, it is the ISP that owns them. Thus, the question of Freedom of Information and ownership of e-mails has wider ramifications than are commonly believed. We intend to pursue these questions and get to the bottom of this matter. Stay tuned.