Are Social Media Accounts Public Records?

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A court case may be needed to determine whether Missouri’s Open Records Law applies to public officials’ social media accounts.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley wrote a letter in February concluding that the office of Gov. Eric Greitens is not required to turn over records from his Facebook and Twitter accounts. The Columbia Missourian newspaper had filed a records request last summer seeking some records from Greitens’ social media accounts, including the names of people who had been blocked.

Greitens, a Republican, has bypassed the traditional news media to get his messages to the public. Through his Facebook account, he reaches out to thousands of his followers with policy announcements, news releases about governmental activities and public statements. Earlier this year he entertained questions about a tax proposal through Facebook Live.

When the administrator of a public Facebook page blocks someone from commenting, that action could create an inaccurate public image of support for the public official’s positions. A public official blocking comments can create a false impression of the public’s true reaction to a governmental decision.

The governor’s office contends his Facebook account is private and not subject to Missouri’s Sunshine law. Since the “@EricGreitens” Facebook page had been created before he became governor, the social media account is not considered a public record, according to the governor’s legal counsel.

A spokeswoman for Hawley’s office said if campaign or personal social media accounts are not used to conduct public business they are not subject to the state’s Open Records Law.

Mark Horvit, state government editor for the Missourian, said increasingly public officials are using social media as their primary connection to constituents. Horvit said public officials in other states had turned over social media records.

“The logical next step, in reaction to the attorney general’s ruling, is to go to court,” Horvit said. “The business of government has absolutely been conducted on the governor’s Facebook account.”

The Missourian has discovered that some of those blocked from Greitens’ Facebook page had challenged his decision to sign into law “right to work” legislation that weakened labor unions.