Public Email and the Sunshine Law

Monday, April 7, 2008
Posted by Brawlin Melgar

by John Beagle

Recently, angry parents sued the Mason, Ohio School Board* for not providing emails sent and received by school authorities on school computers.

Bottom Line: Mason Schools may be a violation of the Ohio Sunshine Laws**.

This may be a wakeup call for all public entities in Ohio and other states from Florida to Hawaii, that have enacted similar sunshine laws.

I spoke with a 15 year computer network engineer and email expert, Josh VanCleave+ about email, Sunshine Laws and Ohio's Public Records Act and Ohio's Open Meetings Act.

Beagle: Describe what is required in terms of complying with legal email data requests from parents and other entities.

VanCleave: E-Mail or any electronic documents for any government agency are considered public record and therefore must be retained and made available to the public.  

There are very strict guidelines for the types of e-mail that are not considered public record and are allowed to be redacted from the public.  These are things like personal communications in no way relating to work, e-mail's detailing student academic records, medical information, adoption information, probation information, parole information, confidential law enforcement records, confidential civil rights records, criminal records, even e-mail's that give information such as home addresses or phone numbers.  

To comply with the public records act a government agency must adhere to strict standards, the public records act states "all public records shall be promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours … upon request, a public office or person responsible for public records shall make copies available at cost, within a reasonable period of time…"

a.    There are no limits on who may make a public records request, the act expressly states that "any person" may make a request.
b.    The request for public records does not have to be made in writing, officials may request the requestor complete a form, but they can not be required to do so.
c.    Public records must be provided to the requestor "at cost" which means the requestor is only allowed to be charged for the media, government agencies can not charge for the labor involved with duplicating the public records.
d.    There may be no limits set on the amount of public records requests a person is allowed to make, however a government agency may limit the number of requests sent by mail to 10 per month.
e.    Any person who claims a denial of the opportunity to inspect or receive a copy of a public record may file a mandamus action in state court to obtain a judgment ordering the public agency to make requested records available.

Beagle: What would you suggest for Ohio Governments and School Districts?
VanCleave: Ohio Governments and School Districts need a way of archiving all e-mails so that public records are not accidentally discarded by e-mail users.  There is a large misconception by non technical people that if they have a backup system for their e-mail server they are in compliance.  This could not be more wrong. 

"Backups are not sufficient to comply"
Backups alone are not sufficient to comply with e-mail archiving rules and regulations.  Backups are essentially a snapshot of your e-mail at one moment in time.  They do not record messages removed from the deleted items folder.  Also, any message that is sent and then removed from the sent items folder before a backup is run is never c