Public Information on Your Phone or Other Personal Devices

Senate Bill 944 by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) enacts long-standing Attorney General letter rulings, dating back to 2001, which state that public information held on a private device or in a private account must be released.

The bill clarifies that “temporary custodians” of public information such as school district trustees and school employees must maintain texts and emails received on their personal devices (cell phones, tablets, computers, etc.) related to district business or transfer those documents to the district. If pertinent documents have not been transferred to the district, trustees and employees would have to maintain the documents received on their personal devices during their tenure even if they left office or district employment. *Note that SB 944 applies only to documents, including texts and emails, created or received on or after September 1, 2019. See frequently asked questions below:

  1. What do I do if information is requested of me?

Your district should have a “public information officer” responsible for receiving requests, and they will work with you to get the required information. (The district must respond to the request within 10 days.)

  1. How would I be required to transfer the information?

The bill includes no specific description of how the public information officer should collect the information or how an employee should transfer the information.

SB 944 requires no state-level rulemaking, which means that school districts will implement this law according to their own interpretation. Check your district’s records retention policy to see if there are any recent updates that address SB 944.

  1. Will I have to hand over my personal phone?

An employee in possession of requested information has no duty to hand over a personal device on which the information is maintained, but the employee is required to provide the information itself to the public information officer within 10 days. TEX. GOV’T CODE § 552.233(b).

  1. What happens if the information is not provided?

If an employee fails to surrender or return the public information requested by the public information officer, the governmental body will have grounds to discipline an employee that is a temporary custodian. TEX. GOV’T CODE § 552.233(c). Also, the temporary custodian will be subject to any penalties provided by the Public Information Act or other laws. For example, a temporary custodian can be subject to a writ of mandamus under section 552.321 of the Government Code or criminally charged with failure to provide access to public information under section 552.353 of the Government Code.