The Attorney General recently issued an opinion that reinforces the risks associated with public officials’ use of personal electronic devices and e-mail accounts to conduct public business. In the opinion, the Attorney General held that electronic records relating to the transaction of public business are “public records” subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), even if they are generated on a public official’s personal electronic device or e-mail account. The implications of the opinion are significant because of the logistical hurdles, costs associated with searches of such technology, and potential privacy issues. Public bodies may wish to adopt policies and procedures to avoid some of those implications.
In the first binding opinion issued by the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) since April, 2011, the Attorney General addressed a FOIA request from a staff reporter for The News Gazette to the City of Champaign, Illinois. 2011 PAC 15916. The FOIA request sought “[a]ll electronic communications, including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council and the mayor during city council meetings and study sessions . . . .” The requester clarified that his request applied to “city-issued and personal cellphones, city-issued or personal email addresses and Twitter accounts.”
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