N.C. Media: State E-Mail Must Be Saved

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Representatives of the state’s media organizations said Thursday it’s clear that North Carolina’s public records law requires e-mail sent by state workers to be saved and made available for inspection.

Rick Thames, the editor of The Charlotte Observer and president-elect of the North Carolina Press Association, said all e-mails involving state employees and elected officials should be preserved.

“Any policy that allows the destruction of e-mails is in blatant violation of our state’s open records law,” Thames told a panel reviewing retention rules.

Gov. Mike Easley created the panel to review the state’s e-mail rules after the fired spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services said state employees were told to delete e-mails they sent to the governor’s office.

The panel is comprised of state officials, a city attorney, and at least two former journalists, Ferrel Guillory, once of The News & Observer of Raleigh, and Ned Cline, an ex-managing editor at the News & Record Of Greensboro.

The 62,100 e-mail users in North Carolina executive branch and cabinet-level agencies receive an estimated 884,000 incoming messages daily, and the number continues to grow. Panel members questioned the cost of archiving all those e-mails, but Thames said the state could purchase software for as little as $120,000 a year to accomplish the task.

“The point is: There are solutions,” Thames said. “Technology can help you do this.”

E-mails with short-term value _ such as travel reservations or appointment confirmation _ may disposed off “when they no longer have reference value to the sender or receiver of the message,” according a Department of Cultural Resources policy approved in 2002.

But John Bussian, an attorney for the press association, told the panel that policy also violates state law. He said workers shouldn’t be making those judgments.

“To try to offer a way to split hairs is only inviting the kind of trouble that created this panel,” Bussian said.

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