OUR OPINION: Ethics Commission affirms open records

The Mississippi Ethics Commission brought open meetings-open records law firmly into 21st century communications with an opinion that text messages about government business are public record, available to every citizen as well as to news organizations.

The commission’s opinion came after a request from the Daily Journal, which sought clarity on whether text messages were public records. We believed they were. The city of Tupelo, through its attorney Ben Logan, had contended they were not.

Now that the matter is resolved, it’s encouraging that Mayor Jason Shelton and Logan say they’ll proceed to follow the commission’s opinion by developing a system to archive these communications for public accessibility.

The Journal had requested text messages from Shelton over a three-day period last fall in the course of the newspaper’s reporting on the resignation of former Development Services Director BJ Teal.

The commission on Monday delivered to the Daily Journal and the city of Tupelo its opinion, made Friday without dissent on the eight-member panel, that the city – and presumably all public bodies – must archive and make available text messages that have to do with city business.

The city had claimed the messages were not public record in part because they were sent from Shelton’s private cell phone. The Ethics Commission found that public officials’ text messages related to city business, regardless of the device used to produce them, qualify as public records under the Mississippi Public Records Act.

“Any text message used by a city official in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of (the city), or required to be maintained by the (city) is a public record subject to the Act, regardless of where the record is stored,” the commission wrote in the advisory opinion.

The Daily Journal has no interest in personal communications unrelated to official business, but official communications in the context of whatever public position the sender holds should be public record, except as already exempted under the law.

However, the commission said, “Any doubt about whether records should be disclosed should be resolved in favor of disclosure.”

The public interest requires transparency in official communications of government at any level. The commission’s ruling provides more light on those records and affirms the central importance of openness in the conduct of the public’s business.