The Ohio Supreme Court Brings the Sunshine Laws into the Technological Age

In Employee Benefits by Coolidge Wall

In May, the Ohio Supreme Court in White v. King, 2016-Ohio-2770, expressly provided that a meeting of a public body does not have to occur face to face. A meeting includes discussions that occur “telephonically, by video conference, or electronically by e-mail, text, tweet, or other form of communication.”

A. Specific Facts of White v. King.

In White v. King, one member of the Olentangy Local School District Board of Education, Adam White, filed suit against the Board claiming that they had violated the Open Meetings Act (R.C. 121.22). White had conducted an investigation into alleged improper expenditures by two athletic directors. After that investigation, the Board amended one of its policies to require that any communications between members of the Board and staff first had to pass through the district superintendent or the district treasurer. White voted against the change and the Columbus Dispatch published an editorial which praised White for his vote against the policy and implicitly criticized the other members of the Board for adopting the policy to prevent White from conducting additional investigations.

The Board members, other than Adam White, wanted to respond to the editorial. The Board members and a few other district employees collaborated in a series of e-mails. One of the Board members created a proposed response that was signed by all of the Board members besides White. The trial court ruled in favor of the Board and its members. White challenged the trial court’s ruling only with respect to the Board. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

B.  Ohio Supreme Court’s Decision.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the trial and appellate courts and determined that nothing in the plain language of the Ohio Open Meetings Act requires that a meeting occur face to face. Any prearranged discussion can be a meeting, which can be conducted by telephone, by video conference, or by e-mail, text, tweet, or any other form of communication. The Court also found that there was no difference between serial in-person communications and serial electronic communications (in this case through e-mail) because public bodies must discuss public issues in a public forum.

The Court ultimately held that White may be able to prove set of facts that could entitle him to the relief he sought and that serial e-mail communications by a majority of the Board’s members may constitute a private, prearranged discussion of public business in violation of the Ohio Open Meetings Act, if requirements of the statute are met.

C.  Significance.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in White v. King is significant because it specifically provides that the Ohio Open Meetings Act can apply to serial electronic communications, including texts, e-mails, and tweets, if the requirements of the Act are met. If the series of e-mails is a prearranged discussion of the public business with a majority of the members of the public body, then it can fall under the purview of the Ohio Open Meetings Act and the public body must follow the requirements of the Act. The decision is also significant because it implies that text messages, tweets, and other electronic communications can be public records if public business is discussed and are therefore subject to the Ohio Public Records Act (R.C. 149.43).

To learn more about the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, or to discuss the Ohio Sunshine Laws in general, please contact Jessica A. Brockman at Coolidge Wall at 937-449-5545.

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