Teachable Instant: Clinton's 'Email-gate'

In this brief lesson, students learn about and discuss the controversy over Hillary Clinton's private email system as U.S. Secretary of State.  


Ask students what, if anything, they have heard about the debate over Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Elicit or explain that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was U.S. Secretary of State for four years. During that time, Clinton used her own personal email server instead of the federal government's email server for her official communications.

Since this became news in March 2015, there has been a steady stream of media reports about the legality of Clinton’s email system, possible security breaches and email deletions, a governmental review of her 55,000 emails, Clinton's arguments in her defense, and accusations by political opponents. Public distrust of Hillary Clinton, as measured by opinion polls, has grown steadily.

But despite Clinton’s drop in the polls and favorability ratings, 39% of those polled believe that Clinton "did nothing wrong" in using a private email system.

People on all sides of the political spectrum say they believe that open government, or "transparency," is a crucial ingredient for a working democracy.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.  Information maintained by the federal government is a national asset.
-- President Barack Obama

But one of the reasons there is a crisis of confidence in this country over the government is because there is not transparency. Without transparency, accountability cannot be carried out.
-- Republican Senator Tom Coburn

Openness in government is not a liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Tea Party or Libertarian issue. The importance of transparency in local, state and federal government should transcend parties and political ideologies. Checks and balances provide few checks and little balance when officials broker deals behind closed doors and conceal documents that contain important information that citizens have the right, and often the need, to know.
-- National Freedom of Information Coalition


Journalists, advocacy groups, historians and other researchers use tools like the Freedom of Information Act to pry information out of government agencies at all levels. There are thousands of examples of new stories that originated with Freedom of Information requests. For example:

  • the safety hazards of the Ford Pinto
  • the health hazards of Agent Orange to Vietnam War veterans
  • thefts by TSA agents at airports
  • the FBI practice of allowing informants to break the law
  • the Pentagon paying to plant articles in Iraqi media
  • federal loans designed to help businesses recover after 9/11 that went to companies completely unrelated to 9/11 (e.g. a dog boutique in Utah)

Secrecy versus openness in government will continue to be a key issue for our democracy - no matter how Hillary Clinton’s "email-gate" problem is resolved.

For discussion:

  • One of Hillary Clinton's defenses is that other government officials--including other secretaries of state, like Colin Powell--also used private email accounts. Is this argument persuasive? Why or why not?
  • Should we allow public officials to decide which of their communications should be public and trust that they are making the right choices?
  • Is it possible that the email scandal is being blown out of proportion by Clinton's political enemies?
  • If Hillary Clinton were to visit your class, what questions would you ask about her private email server?


Optional assignment

Ask students to go to the National Security Archive website (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/foia/stories.htm) to view some news items (from 2004-2006) that originated with Freedom of Information Act requests. Ask students to choose one story to research and write two paragraphs on the importance of the news story.