New apps that allow people to communicate without leaving a pesky digital record may be a godsend for those engaged in top-secret negotiations, confidential advising and ordinary gossip, but we hope all Ohio public officials recognize that they’re absolutely inappropriate for government work.
It should be obvious: Ohio’s “Sunshine” laws require government business to be done in public, and that means government records, with some exceptions, must be available to the public. A government-business text or email that disappears automatically after a set time would be the same as destroying a public record.
Given the time-honored inclination of some in government to evade public scrutiny, though, it’s probably worth emphasizing that vanishing-message apps — sort of a 21st century equivalent of the sizzling reel-to-reel tape recorder on the old “Mission Impossible” — don’t belong in public service.
The Associated Press recently tracked legislation in all 50 states and found a number of attempts to shortchange public access:
‒ In Louisiana and Kentucky, lawmakers tried (and failed, thankfully) to exempt all communications on personal phones from open-records laws — as if who paid for the phone can change whether the communication is public.
‒ A Virginia legislator introduced a bill to exempt lawmakers’ personal social-media records from public disclosure.
‒ In Missouri, former Gov. Eric Greiten’s staff’s use of the Confide app, which automatically deletes messages and doesn’t allow them to be forwarded or made into screenshots, prompted opposition lawmakers to clarify that personal social-media posts and messages sent through such apps nonetheless are public records if they relate to public business.
It’s a fact of modern life that many of us communicate on multiple devices all day and enjoy no clean separation between work and personal time. For government employees, that undoubtedly complicates the definition and preservation of public records, but it doesn’t change the principle that any communication by or to government employees involving public business must be retained and made available to the public.
A state representative in Missouri, pushing for the public-records bill, said it best: “We should not be allowed to conduct state business using invisible ink.”