This morning, the Raleigh News & Observer reported the following:
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled that
"our government officials, including University officials and coaches, are [not] entitled to use the personal cell phone "dodge" to evade the North Carolina Public Records law."
The judge's order is a good reminder of several important legal and practical principles for charter school officials.
- General Coverage. Charter schools and boards are subject to state public records requirements.
- Public Business Records. Any records (regular or electronic) that relate to conducting the business of the school are public records, unless otherwise protected by confidentiality exceptions (e.g., student records, certain personnel file information).
- Personal Devices. Judges have increasingly held that public records rules extend to personal electronic devices if those devices are used to conduct public business. (You may recall that former Governor Easley's administration faced the same problem.)
- Extraction. Usually, when granting a records request for personal cell phone records or similar types of files (e.g., personal computer files, e-mails), courts will limit access only to those files of a public nature. This can lead to complicated and time-consuming screening of such records. In cases of "mixed records" (e.g., an e-mail containing both business and personal information) the court will sometimes require extraction of the personal information, and production of the public information.
- Review Your Practices. School officials need to review their use of personal, as well as school-owned, devices to minimize the risk of an embarrassing and/or illegal public records practice.
- Policies in Place. School boards should have Public Records and Acceptable Use Policies that address public records requirements and the relationship and propriety of school and personal device uses.
- Training & Reminders. School Boards and other officials should be trained in and regularly reminded regarding public records laws.
- Reverse Confidentiality Issue. There is also an important "reverse issue": the use of school devices for personal use. This can create special problems and also requires review and possible revision of your school's practices and policies.
- Legal Guidance. Your school attorney should be involved in guiding your school's records policies and practices.
We hope Coach Davis' cellphone use offers you some good lessons for your school's operations.
If we can be of assistance in offering legal counsel, training, and/or policies review or development, please let us know.