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SPJ applauds City of Tupelo, SPJ member, for bringing electronic public records into compliance with law


Sept. 15, 2014

Dana Neuts, SPJ President, 360.920.1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317.361.4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists applauds SPJ member Robbie Ward for his dedication to shining light on the need for the City of Tupelo to bring electronic public records into compliance with Mississippi's open records law.

Ward, staff writer for The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, prodded the City of Tupelo to become the first city in Mississippi to maintain and archive text messages, making them available to the public. Ben Logan, Tupelo city attorney, made public recently an electronic messages policy intended to formally provide guidance for all elected city leaders and employees.

“Public officials throughout Mississippi discuss public policy by email and text messages,” Ward said. “State law defines public records by substance, not medium.”

SPJ President Dana Neuts recognized Ward’s work in shedding some light on the law and bringing it to the attention of local governments in Mississippi and around the country.

“Keeping the government accountable by giving taxpayers access to electronic public records is another way we can help to ensure open government,” Neuts said. “SPJ commends Mr. Ward’s work in the fight for transparency and a more open government, and we hope other city governments in Mississippi and across the country who are not currently following the law take note and follow Tupelo’s lead.”

This action resulted largely in response to the Mississippi Ethics Commission ruling against the city in April. The city denied a Daily Journal records request for text messages sent and received between Mayor Jason Shelton and B.J. Teal during a four-day period overlapping with the former department head leaving her job.

Logan told the City Council the final version of the policy could be ready for consideration by mid-October. The policy could set the standard throughout the state by creating a city policy to archive and maintain electronic communications. Mississippi Department of Archives and History laws require all local governments to permanently retain and archive all public records, including text messages and emails that elected officials and department heads make related to public business.

“Tupelo officials should be applauded for turning a negative situation into an opportunity to set a positive example for open government throughout Mississippi,” Ward said. “This newfound sunshine can encourage public access to electronic information in hundreds of local governments in violation of state law.”

The Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983 identifies all local government records as open to the public unless information qualifies as exempt from public access under the state open records law. Changes could include each City Council member using a Tupelo government email address for city business.

Mississippi State Archives and History officials have said they know of none of the nearly 400 local governments statewide currently in compliance with the law.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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