Privacy boss rules against Alberta Education over teacher emails

Alberta’s privacy commissioner has ruled against the province’s education ministry, saying the disclosure of teachers' names and personal email addresses was not authorized.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson sent an email to more than 34,000 teachers during negotiations

Education Minister Jeff Johnson doesn't believe the four teachers he fired should be allowed to return to the classroom. (CBC)

Alberta’s privacy commissioner has ruled against the province’s education department, saying the disclosure of teachers' names and personal email addresses was not authorized. 

In February of 2013, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson sent an email to more than 34,000 teachers while the school boards were negotiating new contracts.

The email said contract negotiations were over and the province wouldn’t budge on what it had already offered. Johnson also said in the email that school boards must negotiate a three-year wage freeze with teachers and a salary increase of no more than two per cent in the fourth year.

Some of the email addresses were personal, and privacy commissioner Jill Clayton ruled that was against the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“The heart of the matter is transparency,” said Clayton in a news release. “Even if you have authority to share information, it is important to be up-front with people as to why their personal information is being collected and how it will be used.”

Clayton wants Alberta Education to remove those email addresses from the minister’s mailing list and provide clear instruction to school authorities that only business email addresses provided by school authorities can be included.

In a written statement, Johnson said that he is reviewing the ruling to ensure the ministry is in compliance with privacy legislation.

However, he said that it is "critical" for him to have " direct and open dialogue" with teachers. 

"I believe teachers deserve to hear from me directly about issues and developments that may affect them," Johnson said. 

"We will continue to communicate with our teachers through email. It’s important to remember that many teachers aren’t provided with a work email account and have to use their personal email address in a professional capacity. They deserve to receive the same information provided to their colleagues."

Commissioner could hold inquiry

Johnson's statement was described as "off-putting" by Dennis Theobald, spokesman for the Alberta Teachers' Association. 

"The minister may believe he has an important message to send them, but that doesn't give him the right to access without permission an individual's private email," Theobald said. 

Johnson turned down requests for an interview. On Twitter, he said that he respected the commissioner's ruling and "will ensure our future emails to teachers adhere to her recommendations."

But Theobald remains concerned.

"It's clear that the minster has received the message. I suppose the question is has he learned the lesson?"

Privacy commissioner spokeswoman Candace Cook said that if Johnson doesn't comply with the legislation, he could face further action. 

“The 34 complainants to this investigation have the option, if they choose, to ask that the commissioner conduct an inquiry," she said.

"If the commissioner does conduct an inquiry, there are binding orders that are issued at the end of the inquiry.”

The decision to hold an inquiry lies with the privacy commissioner, Cook said. 

Johnson is currently battling the Alberta Teachers' Association over who should evaluate and discipline the province's teachers.

He has recently come under fire for asking every school board for the names of teachers who have had complaints filed against them over the past ten years and those who left voluntarily due to misconduct or incompetence. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.