Washington Public Records Act & Social Media
The Washington Public Records Act requires that government agencies preserve public records regardless of physical form. This includes the digital records created through social media and the metadata behind the records.
As of July 1, 2014, all elected officials and state and local appointees in Washington must complete training in understanding and applying public records and open meetings laws. Online training resources are available from the Office of the Attorney General.
Washington Law Text
Public Records Act: RCW 42.56.010
(1) “Agency” includes all state agencies and all local agencies. “State agency” includes every state office, department, division, bureau, board, commission, or other state agency. “Local agency” includes every county, city, town, municipal corporation, quasi-municipal corporation, or special purpose district, or any office, department, division, bureau, board, commission, or agency thereof, or other local public agency.
(3) “Public record” includes any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics. For the office of the secretary of the senate and the office of the chief clerk of the house of representatives, public records means legislative records as defined in RCW 40.14.100 and also means the following: All budget and financial records; personnel leave, travel, and payroll records; records of legislative sessions; reports submitted to the legislature; and any other record designated a public record by any official action of the senate or the house of representatives.
(4) “Writing” means handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, and every other means of recording any form of communication or representation including, but not limited to, letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combination thereof, and all papers, maps, magnetic or paper tapes, photographic films and prints, motion picture, film and video recordings, magnetic or punched cards, discs, drums, diskettes, sound recordings, and other documents including existing data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated.
Social Media Records Guidelines from the Governor
The Office of the Governor specifically mentions social media records in Washington in the context of the Public Records Act and lays the responsibility for capturing and retaining those records on the agencies that create them.
Read the Governor's Guidelines
Guidelines and Best Practices for Social Media Use in Washington State:
- The agency recognizes that all content published and received by the agency using social media in connection with the transaction of the agency’s public business are public records for the purposes of Chapter 40.14 RCW (Preservation and destruction of public records).
- The agency remains responsible for capturing electronic copies of its public records made or received using social media, including those records made or received using third-party websites
- The agency must establish mechanisms/procedures to capture and retain public records made or received using social media.
Legal Precedent for Preserving Electronic Records
In a 2010 decision on the O’Neill v. City of Shoreline case, the Supreme Court of Washington determined that metadata, which is the data that describes and identifies other data, is public information and subject to the Public Records Act.
This case allows us to consider whether metadata is a public record that must be disclosed under the Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW. This is a matter of first impression before this court. We affirm the Court of Appeals and hold that metadata associated with public records is subject to disclosure under the PRA.
Washington Social Media Records Management in Practice
The City of Seattle and the City of Olympia offer prominent examples of how local governments are including Washington Public Records Act and general public records law compliance in their social media policies.
View Seattle's Social Media Policy
City of Seattle Social Media and Records Retention
6. City of Seattle social media sites are subject to State of Washington public records laws. Any content maintained in a social media format that is related to City business, including a list of subscribers and posted communication, is a public record. The Department maintaining the site is responsible for responding completely and accurately to any public records request for public records on social media. Content related to City business shall be maintained in an accessible format and so that it can be produced in response to a request (see the City of Seattle Twitter, Facebook and CityLink standards). Wherever possible, such sites shall clearly indicate that any articles and any other content posted or submitted for posting are subject to public disclosure. Users shall be notified that public disclosure requests must be directed to the relevant departmental public disclosure officer.
7. Washington state law and relevant City of Seattle records retention schedules apply to social media formats and social media content. Unless otherwise addressed in a specific social media standards document, the Department maintaining a site shall preserve records required to be maintained pursuant to a relevant records retention schedule for the required retention period on a City server in a format that preserves the integrity of the original record and is easily accessible. Appropriate retention formats for specific social media tools are detailed in the City of Seattle Twitter, Facebook and CityLink standards.
View Olympia's Social Media Policy
City of Olympia Social Media Policy and Records Retention
All content added or uploaded to City of Olympia social media sites will be periodically reviewed by City staff. All content on City of Olympia social media is considered a public record. For that reason, users should refrain from including telephone numbers, home addresses, email addresses, and any other private information in the body of their comment.