University of Florida Communication Network

UF Policy on E-Mail as Public Records

It is the policy of the University of Florida that all employees will comply with Florida's public records law and state retention schedules for public records, including electronic mail (e-mail).

Florida's Public Records Law:

Florida's public records law, listed in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, defines public records as:

"All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software or other material, regardless of physical form, or characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency."

The Florida Supreme Court interprets this definition to encompass all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business which are used to perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge. All of these materials, regardless of form, are open for public inspection unless the legislature has specifically exempted them from disclosure. One Florida court has held that "information stored in a computer is as much a public record as a written page in a book or a tabulation in a file stored in a filing cabinet."

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How the Law Affects You as a University of Florida Employee:

E-mail created or received by University of Florida employees in connection with official business, which perpetuates, communicates or formalizes knowledge, is subject to the public records law and open for inspection.

If your e-mail falls within the definition of a public record, you may not delete it except as provided in the university's record retention schedule (see page 6). Unless it falls within one of the specific exemptions described in the public records statute, you must produce that e-mail message to any person upon request. A person need not have a "legitimate" need for public records to be entitled to inspect them.

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Exemptions to the Public Records Law:

State and federal law exempts certain categories of documents from disclosure under the public records law. The exemptions which apply most often to University of Florida records include:

Before any e-mail is released pursuant to a public records request, any exempt information must be deleted from the e-mail.

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Responding to a Public Records Request:

Public records requests may be made in writing or orally. All public records requests should be referred to the appropriate department chair or administrative supervisor. The department chair or administrative supervisor is responsible for appointing one or more persons to gather the requested documents and then either arranging a time for inspection of the documents or making copies available to the requestor. E-mail that does not fall within the definition of a public record should not be produced. E-mail which is a public record but contains exempt information should be produced but the exempt information must first be deleted or redacted. If in doubt as to whether an e-mail message is a public record or contains exempt information, the department chair or administrative supervisor should contact the Office of News & Public Affairs (392-0186), which will consult with the General Counsel's Office as necessary.

If the person making the records request wishes to obtain copies of the documents, the public records law allows the university to charge 15 cents per one-sided copy. In addition, if copying the public records requires extensive use of information technology resources or clerical and/or supervisory assistance, the university may assess a reasonable service charge based on the university's actual incurred costs. An estimate of the charges should be given to the requestor and approval obtained prior to responding to the request. All charges should be collected before producing the documents.

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Transitory Messages

The record series entitled "Transitory Messages," found in the university's general records schedule, is designed to cover certain E-mail communications, as well as other information with short-term administrative value. The transitory message series is defined as follows:

Transitory messages consist of those records that are created primarily for the informal communication of information, as opposed to communications designed for the perpetuation or formalization of knowledge. Transitory messages do not set policy, establish guidelines or procedures, certify a transaction, or become a receipt. The informal nature of transitory messages might be compared to the communication that might take place during a telephone conversation or verbal communications in an office hallway. Transitory messages would include, but would not be limited to: E-mail messages with short-lived or no administrative value, voice mail, self-sticking notes, and telephone messages.

Retention is defined as retaining until obsolete, superceded, or administrative value is lost.

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Retention Periods for Public Records:

Retention periods for public records, including e-mail, can be found in the university's general records schedule. This schedule incorporates items found in the state General Records Schedule for State and Local Government Records (GS1), University/Community College Records (GS5) and other University of Florida retention schedules. The university's general records schedule is available in the Records Management Office (238 Tigert Hall, PO Box 113175, 392-4180 or e-mail Dennis Kozak).

Retention schedules are based on a record's informational content, not its format. Retention of most e-mail records falls within the following two categories:

1. Retain Until Obsolete, Superseded, or Administrative Value is Lost:   This means that the records only have to be retained until they have served their administrative purpose. Examples of such records would be as follows:

2. Retain for Three Fiscal Years:  General correspondence, sender's inter-departmental memoranda, and most fiscal and budget records.

Each year, administrative offices are required to file records disposition requests with the Records Management Office for any obsolete public records that they wish to destroy. E-mail files should be a part of these destruction requests.

However, Rule 1B-24.010(3) of the Florida Administrative Code allows state agencies to dispose of all records with a retention value of, "retain until obsolete, superceded, or administrative value lost"(OSA) without having to fill out a records disposition request. In other words, both duplicates and master copies of records with this retention period may be disposed of by each department when, in the judgement of the department, they are obsolete, superceded, or have lost their administrative value. In applying this rule, any E-mail messages created or received that fall under this retention period may be deleted at the user’s discretion, under the above standards.

E-mail messages that have a longer retention period -- such as correspondence or sender's memoranda -- must be kept through the three-year retention period and may not be disposed of until records disposition requests have been submitted and approved.

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Maintaining E-Mail Documents:

Florida's public records law offers challenges to maintaining e-mail, mainly because e-mail documents are both informal and efficient. Most e-mail users prefer to reduce or eliminate the handling, filing and archiving tasks often associated with hard copy. Because of the differences in which e-mail and hard copy are used, many e-mail users do not have systems in place for periodically reviewing, storing or deleting e-mail.

Public record e-mail can be deleted after it has been retained for the correct time period as determined by the retention schedules. A public record that is stored and accessible after this time is still a public record and must be produced upon request. A systematic deletion program not only eliminates obsolete documents from the file, but also saves resources by not indefinitely and unnecessarily storing information beyond appropriate time lines.

While methods for reviewing, storing or deleting e-mail vary, you can comply with the retention requirements of the public records law by doing one of the following:

  • Print the e-mail and store the hard copy in the relevant subject matter file as you would any other hard-copy communication. Printing the e-mail permits you to keep all information on a particular subject matter in one central location, enhancing its historical and archival value. If you choose this method, you may wish to set up your e-mail account so that it does not log outgoing e-mail by default. This will require you to not only print each public record message you send but also determine when you send the e-mail whether it must be saved under the public records law. You must also determine if incoming e-mail must also be printed before being deleted from your system.
  • Electronically store your public record e-mail according to the conventions of your e- mail system and retain it electronically pursuant to the university's retention schedules.
  • The technical details and methods of storing, retrieving and printing your e-mail depend on the e-mail system you use. Consult with your LAN administrator, or departmental computer support personnel, for details.

    Some automatic periodic backup of e-mail by university and department system administrators is done under the university's disaster recovery plan. It is not designed to comply with the public records law. Thus, you need to set up your own retention procedures as outlined above to be sure you are in compliance with the law.

    The previously listed methods for retaining e-mail are in compliance with the public records law. Regardless of the method used, remember: the ultimate responsibility for complying with the public records law is on you, the e-mail user.

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    Frequently Asked Questions:

    Q: What do I do when a reporter calls asking for my e-mail?

    Notify your department chair or administrative supervisor who will coordinate with the Office of News & Public Affairs the gathering of the public record e-mail documents that need to be given to the reporter.

    Q: Does a requestor need to show a "legitimate interest" in my public records e-mail before being allowed to see it?

    No. Any person has the right to request to see a public record for any reason.

    Q: Does a requestor have the right to conduct a "fishing expedition" and make "overbroad" requests?

    Yes. The law does not require the requestor to specify a particular document. You may want to call News & Public Affairs (392-0186) when responding to "overbroad" requests to seek advice on how to have the request narrowed.

    Q: May I refuse to respond to a public records request because I just don't have the time to gather the documents?

    No. However, if responding to a public records request requires a substantial amount of time, the law allows you to charge the requestor for the cost of that time.

    Q: How do I determine what information is exempt from the public records law?

    Contact News & Public Affairs (392-0186) if you have any questions. If additional advice is needed, News & Public Affairs will contact the General Counsel's Office.

    Q: Am I required to produce personal, non-business-related e-mail upon request?

    No. Only e-mail made or received pursuant to law or in connection with the transaction of official university business must be produced. Appropriate use of university equipment for personal reasons is addressed in other university policies.

    Q: How quickly must I respond to a public records request?

    The law requires you to respond within a reasonable time, which will depend on the nature of the request. However, the courts have made it clear that public records are to be given a high priority.

    Q: May I require requestors to put public records requests in writing?

    No. Oral public records requests are as valid as written requests. However, you may ask for the request to be placed in writing so there are no misunderstandings about what is sought.

    Q: Must I produce my public record e-mail in a particular format?

    No. You are only required to produce existing records. The law does not require you to create new records.

    Q: Does the public records law require me to answer questions regarding the content of public record e-mail?

    No. You are only required to produce the documents. You do not have to answer any questions, although at times it may helpful to do so.

    Q: If the person who sent me a public record e-mail asked me to keep it confidential, can I refuse to produce it?

    No. If a document is a non-exempt public record, it must be produced upon request, even if the sender has asked that it be kept confidential.

    Q: What happens if I refuse to turn over a public record upon request?

    A person who knowingly violates the public records law is subject to disciplinary action and may be found guilty of a criminal law violation.

    Q: If I keep university public records at my house instead of my office, must I still produce them upon request?

    Yes. All non-exempt public records must be produced regardless of where they are physically located.

    Q: What if the requested document contains exempt and public material? Can I withhold the entire document?

    Not usually. When possible, the law requires you to delete the portion of the document that is exempt and provide the document to the requestor. If this is not possible, News & Public Affairs can help you comply with the law.

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