ACLU welcomes Norfolk’s agreement to treat text messages as public records
Richmond, VA – The ACLU of Virginia announced today that it has reached a settlement agreement on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with the City of Norfolk in a lawsuit filed over the City’s refusal to treat texts of public officials as public records. Under the settlement agreement, 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 ACLU of Virginia represented PETA in the lawsuit.
“The public cannot hold government accountable if the government’s records are kept secret,” said Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia and one of PETA’s lawyers in the suit. “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,” added Glenberg. “We trust that other local governments will learn from Norfolk’s experience and follow suit.”
The lawsuit, filed in January 2014, arose from requests by PETA under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for certain text messages to and from Norfolk City Council members. Norfolk informed PETA that it did not save such messages. The ACLU and PETA argued that Norfolk’s failure to save text messages violated both the Public Records Act (PRA), which requires governments to preserve public records, and FOIA, which requires governments to produce public records upon request.
The settlement, signed yesterday by Norfolk Circuit Court Judge John R. Doyle, III, requires Norfolk to “maintain a policy under which text messages sent or received in the course of public business are treated as ‘public records’ under FOIA and the PRA.” The city’s current policy complies with the settlement by requiring any public employee who uses text messages for work to forward the messages to their email account for storage.
The settlement also requires the city to pay the ACLU of Virginia $18,000 in attorney’s fees.
The settlement agreement can be read here.