First Arriving Network
Powered by the First Arriving Network, Reaching 1M+ First Responders Worldwide

Text Messaging and Public Records Laws

Today’s burning question: Our union attended a city council meeting, and during the course of the meeting we observed one of the councilmen texting. Are his texts subject to the public record laws? I mean, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could force him to disclose copies of his text messages?

Answer: Text messages are considered to be subject to the public records laws in most states, but before you start doing backflips be careful about what you wish for. If the councilman has to disclose his work related text messages, then so do you while you are on duty.

The Palm Beach Post ran an interesting story yesterday about text messaging and Florida’s Public Records Law. Under state law, text messages, Facebook comments, Tweets and other forms of electronic communications are considered public records when the content of the messages involves government business.

Take a second to absorb that. The entire area of text messaging/public records is fraught with problems:

  • Does it matter if the message was sent using a government owned device or personally owned device?
  • Do both parties to the message have to consent to its disclosure?
  • How long do I have to maintain text messages in order to comply with the public records law?
  • How exactly do I get the text messages off the cellphone and on to paper so that copies can be made?

No doubt, the devil is in the details… and the details are different depending upon the state, the text messaging service provider, the device used, and the content of the messages.  For example, some providers allow text messages to be forwarded to email addresses for retention purposes, and some can directly archive messages. Software is also available to download text messages from cellphones.

This is an evolving issue where the law has not caught up with the technology, but one that impacts all firefighters and EMS personnel.

More on the story.


Comments - Add Yours

  • Chip Comstock

    The inquiry cannot stop with state public records laws. There are a number of federal laws that come into play. The answer re whether these messages are subject to release will depend on a number of issues including the political subdivision’s own policy language.

  • Jim

    How would this work with correspondence about an investigation of a member or between a chief, mayor and lawyer during contract negotiations?

    • Curt Varone

      Public records laws commonly have a number of exceptions, for matters pertaining to investigations, negotiations, attorney-client priviledge, etc.

      It is the content of the text – not what the employee is doing while texting – that determines if it is protected or not. For example – if a council person texts his lawyer during a public meeting, it would be protected while if the council person was in a closed session but was texting the fire chief to ask about whether a certain occupancy needed sprinklers it would not be protected.