Meridian Star

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April 15, 2014

MS Ethics board: Text messages are public records

TUPELO —

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Public officials' text messages about government business are public records, the Mississippi Ethics Commission says.

The commission's first opinion on the matter was unanimous, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (http://bit.ly/RjB86B) reported. The opinion arrived Monday in a dispute between the newspaper and the city of Tupelo but was made Friday at a meeting attended by seven of the eight members.

The advisory opinion said the government broke Mississippi's public records law by refusing to provide the newspaper with copies of text messages sent by Mayor Jason Shelton as mayor from Oct. 23-26, when Development Services Director BJ Teal announced her resignation.

"This will be precedent for all public officials in Mississippi," said Leonard Van Slyke, a media law attorney who advises the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information. "I think the significance of the ruling is public officials can't use text messages as a method to circumvent compliance of the Public Records Act."

The newspaper, which made its public records request in October, asked the commission in December for an advisory opinion.

Although such opinions are non-binding, city attorney Ben Logan told the commission in February that if its opinion said to do so, he would recommend adopting detailed policies and procedures for identifying and storing texts that are public records. He did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday, the newspaper said.

Logan said in October the city does not have Shelton's text messages.

"Purely personal messages having absolutely no relation to city business" don't have to be made public, the commission said, adding, "Any doubt about whether records should be disclosed should be resolved in favor of disclosure."

State law requires permanent retention of municipalities' "executive correspondence."

The law exempts some information such as personnel records and individual tax records.

While formal views on text messages as public documents in Mississippi did not exist before this commission decision, other states have interpreted them for years as public documents.

Mississippi law allows fines up to $100 and all reasonable expenses for legal expenses related to lawsuits for "willfully and knowingly" denying public records access to anyone. Daily Journal Executive Editor Lloyd Gray said the newspaper has no intention to sue as long as Tupelo officials proceed with plans to develop and institute policies that comply with state law.

Senate Bill 2507 (http://bit.ly/1gnpmR8), which Gov. Phil Bryant signed this past Friday, will give the commission power to hold hearings and impose fines for public records violations, starting July 1.

Charlie Mitchell, assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, said the commission reinforced that Mississippi public records laws do not distinguish between digital and paper public records.

"Records, regardless of form, generated in the conduct of public business in Mississippi are public," said Mitchell, also an attorney. "That's the law and has been for decades, and the commission is to be commended for its clearly worded analysis and ruling."

Gray said he was glad the commission clarified the public nature of text messages related to government business.

"That was our intention all along — to achieve clarity in what the law requires of public officials, and we're pleased that the commission came down on the side of transparency and openness," Gray said.

 

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