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Alaska editorial: Text messages

Posted: September 12, 2012 - 11:06pm

This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

The Parnell administration has argued that its text messages among officials are not covered by the state’s public records law and the public has no right to see them.

A legislative attorney and common sense say otherwise.

The answer should be clear to anyone who believes that representative government must be open and accountable.

Texts, tweets, or messages tapped out in Morse code should all be part of the public record if state officials are using them to discuss and act on state business. Calling texts transitory and refusing to keep records of them creates a tanker-sized loophole in state public records law. Officials can meet and make policy decisions while communicating in ways that leave the public in the dark. That’s a powerful temptation to cut the public out and pursue agendas in ways that limit debate and scrutiny.

That’s not how representative government should work.

Sen. Hollis French sought the opinion after a former Parnell administration official said his former colleagues used texting as a means to get around public records law. The administration denies that was the intention, but insists that the public has no right to such records. At this point, we don’t know how much and in what manner state business has been done by text.

Rapidly evolving technology creates complications for maintaining open government, both in terms of record-keeping and policy. But the principle is simple: If you do state business by text, email or other electronic means, that is part of the public record, subject to the law for public access, which allows for some exemptions but keeps the process open.

Lawmakers, who set their own rules for e-communications, should live by the same principle.

The opinion by attorney Dan Wayne isn’t a trail blazer. Courts across the country have ruled that text messages don’t get a pass.

There’s no reason they should in Alaska, either. If texting creates a record-keeping headache, there’s a simple solution. Stop texting.

Texting shouldn’t be a way around public record laws.

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