Text messages about government business are public records, rules Mississippi Ethics Commission

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.”