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Published: Sunday, 12/14/2008

Defending public records

THE OHIO Supreme Court stuck an important blow for good government last week in a landmark ruling that placed electronic messages - even deleted e-mails - among government documents safeguarded by the state's open records laws.

In a unanimous ruling prompted by legal action filed by The Blade, the justices ordered the Seneca County Commissioners to retrieve deleted e-mails related to the commissioners' decision to raze the historic courthouse in Tiffin.

In the decision, Justice Paul Pfeifer noted that deleted e-mails constituted a "novel issue" that had not yet been become settled law. He rejected the commissioners' claim that having to meet records requests for e-mails would place an undue burden on the county's time and finances. "If anything," Justice Pfeifer wrote, "our holding ensures that public officials will be more cognizant of their duties and less likely to delete work-related public office e-mails. Otherwise, without proper preservation of public records, 'the right of access to government records is a hollow one.'•"

He further said that allowing individual commissioner "unreviewable authority to delete work-related e-mails is unreasonable because it would authorize the unfettered destruction of public records," reminding the commissioners that the open records laws exist "to reinforce the understanding that open access to government papers is an integral entitlement of the people, to be preserved with vigilance and vigor."

The court's ruling is a victory for every resident of Ohio because it makes clear that public officials cannot hide their activities merely by hitting the delete key.

Almost from the founding of the Republic, one of the key functions of an independent press has been to act as a watchdog, safeguarding the rights of all Americans. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson felt so strongly about the importance of a free press that he said, "If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." In particular, the newspapers have led the way in securing the public's right to transparent governance. "Let the people know the facts," Abraham Lincoln said, "and the country will be safe."

Even in these hard economic times, The Blade is proud to be at the forefront of that effort. Over the years, this newspaper has been forced dozens of times to seek court relief when public bodies attempted to cloak their actions in secrecy, and it has never lost a single case in its defense of the public's right to hold government accountable for its actions. The fact that in this case the court's ruling was precedent-setting is both humbling and a testament to the fact that the media, for all its faults, are still effective defenders of basic American rights.

Ohioans can take comfort in the knowledge that the obligation of officials to be open and transparent in the conduct of the public's business cannot be sidestepped by a tap on the delete key or a click of a computer mouse.



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