Chatter on Facebook can be public record
May 20, 2009
Networking services such as Facebook and Twitter have made it very easy to stay in touch and just as easy for public officials to unwittingly trigger the state's open records law.
In an advisory ruling based on the clear intent of Florida's Sunshine Law, Attorney General Bill McCollum has warned the city of Coral Springs that if it creates a Facebook page, it must operate the site in a way that keeps all records accessible and all virtual meetings open to the public.
The implications are important for both elected officials and those communicating with constituents on these semiprivate sites. That message you sent to a county commissioner on Facebook could easily become part of the public record and available for anyone to see.
Under state law, anything written or recorded by a local public official related to official business is a public record, even if the message is created on a private computer and directed to a restricted circle of friends.
The Facebook networking site, with about 2 million members, links people in self-selected groups. It has the appearance of being private and exclusive, but it's only as private as your least private friend.
The need for discretion is especially important for elected and appointed officials. If two members of the same public board have a mutual Facebook friend, comments they make individually to that friend about public business could be considered an illegal meeting. Florida law generally requires government meetings to be open to the public with adequate notice and a record of what happened.
The same would be true of text messages sent by cell phone or posted on Internet blogs.
The attorney general is right that officials "must not engage in an exchange or discussion of matters that foreseeably will come before the board or commission for official action."
But the possibility of running afoul of the law is no reason for officials to avoid networking with constituents, acquaintances and news reporters.
One of the most active local politicians on Facebook we know of is Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. He shares much of his daily agenda with more than 500 Facebook contacts known as "friends." Commissioner Rose Ferlita has nearly 900 Facebook friends, including Sharpe.
It is a great forum for officials to keep interested members of the public up to date on what they're doing, but both officials and private citizens need to be careful what they write.
We asked Sharpe, via a Facebook message, for his reaction to the attorney general's cautionary ruling. He wrote that "common sense and sunshine can work together."
He's right. The new networking services are useful, but they still must follow the old laws.
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