Can public officials violate state open-meetings laws by sending e-mails?

Monday, August 23, 2004

Yes, they can, but the answer may vary depending on the particular state law and on how simultaneous the e-mail communications are. A threshold issue under a state open-meeting law is how many members it takes communicating with each other before there is a “meeting.” Another key issue is whether the e-mail messaging concerns actual policy deliberating or decision-making, or whether the e-mails are merely conveying factual information back and forth. Another important issue is whether the government officials are e-mailing each other back and forth in simultaneous fashion. For example, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Beck v. Shelton (2004) that e-mailing between government officials could constitute a meeting and trigger the open-meetings law, but only if the e-mails were exchanged simultaneously, such as in a chat room or through instant messaging.