Not everybody is a fan of the public records law, and even though I’m a self-professed public records geek, I can sympathize with their frustration from time to time.
I got a speeding ticket a few years ago and was inundated with letters from lawyers who were practically begging me to call them for help. It really drove me crazy. I felt bad enough about getting a ticket, but now I had to be reminded of it on a daily basis with all those darn letters.
So how did those law firms get my name and address? Well, my precious public records law helped them.
MediaPost.com blogger Mike Bloxham had a similar experience, although he wasn’t speeding or doing anything illegal. He simply applied online for a fishing license with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which is a (you guessed it!) public agency.
Mike received an e-mail from them alerting him, and other customers, that “an organization” had requested the department’s customer e-mail list. The fisheries and wildlife department tried to fight the public records request but was overruled by the state attorney general who said that the customers’ e-mail addresses are a matter of public record.
Mike reveals later in his MediaPost blog that the “organization” that wanted the e-mail addresses was the Sportsmans Alliance of Maine, which no doubt wanted the list for marketing purposes.
The Sportsmans Alliance used a tricky (some may say clever) tactic to get e-mail addresses of people in their target audience – fishermen. To his credit, Mike even compliments the group and acknowledges that it was “demonstrating the kind of entrepreneurial flair that will give it an advantage.” Still, it’s obvious that Mike’s mad.
The law is clear: Anyone can request public records. You don’t have to give a reason why you want them or explain what you’ll do with the information. I have said that line many times to nosy public information officers who were trying to figure out why I wanted such-and-such information.
In Mike’s case, I totally understand his complaint. The public records law is not perfect and it can annoy people at times (including me), but it is a necessary part of keeping government transparent. And Mike, I’m sorry your e-mail address happens to fall into that category. Thanks for writing a wonderful, thought-provoking blog!