The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, was enacted in 1966 to give citizens the right to access information from the federal government to ensure transparency. All 50 states have public records laws, similar to and often modeled upon FOIA, designed to allow members of the public to obtain documents and other public records from state and local government bodies.
Though they vary in scope and application, most states define records similarly, using language that encompasses all information “regardless of physical form or characteristics”. This definition was designed to remain relevant as the form and format of communication changes through the years from parchment to paper to posts. Simply put, social media is public record.
The following example of this language comes from Pennsylvania’s definition of a record:
In all states, content defines the record more than format, so social media already falls under the existing laws. However, many states have formally revised the language of their statutes to offer specific guidance on social media and public records. The following are some examples:
“Like other forms of communication, social media posts are public records. That means they require you to retain them.”
“Communication through local government-related social media is considered a public record under G.S. 132 and will be managed as such.”
“Social media sites may contain communications sent to or received by state employees, and such communications are therefore public records subject to State Records Retention requirements. These retention requirements apply regardless of the form of the record (digital text, photos, audio, or video, for example).”
The first step for public agencies who wish to ensure compliance with their state’s public records laws when using social media is to implement a comprehensive social media policy that clearly states the role of records retention. The City of Tallahassee, FL provides an excellent example of such a policy.
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