City Officials Must Begin Storing Text Messages, Making Them Available to Public

danjoseph | January 9, 2015
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The Virginia ACLU has announced that it has settled a lawsuit with the city of Norfolk, VA in which the city has agreed that text messages "sent and received in the course of public business will be stored and made available upon request as 'public records' under applicable law." 

The lawsuit—initially filed by PETA(People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)—in 2014, came about after PETA made several FOIA(Freedom of Information Act) requests, asking for access to text messages sent between members of the Norfolk City Council. In response to the request, the City told PETA that it didn't’t save text messages from city officials.

The ACLU joined PETA in their lawsuit arguing that, Virginia law requires records of city business be kept and made available to the public and that those laws apply to text messages of city officials conducting city business.

The city decided to settle the lawsuit and, as a result, placed a new, high-tech burden on employees.

According to the settlement:

“All such received or sent text messages shall be forwarded from the employee to their City email account, where they can be preserved in accordance with the City’s public records retention schedule.”

While consenting to institute the new policy, the City disagrees that the alleged text messages PETA sought, prompting the lawsuit, “ever were sent, received or existed.”

In a statement following the settlement, Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia and one of PETA’s lawyers in the suit said government officials can no longer use new technology to hide their communications from the public:

“The public cannot hold government accountable if the government’s records are kept secret. Government actors must understand they cannot use new forms of communication as a vehicle to hide their official activities. We are pleased Norfolk now recognizes that, when officials use text messages to communicate about government affairs, the public has a right to see those messages. We trust that other local governments will learn from Norfolk’s experience and follow suit.”

The settlement also requires the city to pay the ACLU of Virginia $18,000 in attorney’s fees.

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