The Vermont Public Records Law governs public records in Vermont. According to the Law, public records refer to any written or recorded information produced or acquired by a public agency, regardless of its physical form or characteristics. Therefore, social media records in Vermont fall under this definition and can be considered a public record.
§ 317. Definitions; public agency; public records and documents
b) As used in this subchapter, “public record” or “public document” means any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business. Individual salaries and benefits of and salary schedules relating to elected or appointed officials and employees of public agencies shall not be exempt from public inspection and copying.
The Vermont State Attorney General offers guidance on the criteria for determining what qualifies as a public record under the Vermont Public Records Law. In cases where there is ambiguity as to whether a record should be public or closed, the Attorney General advises agencies to prioritize transparency and err on the side of openness. Based on this guidance and the expansive definition of "public record," social media records in Vermont can be regarded as a public record.
2. Applicability of the Law
“Public record” or “public document” means all papers, documents, machine readable materials or any other written or recorded matters, regardless of their physical form or characteristics, that are produced or acquired in the course of agency business. Title 1, Chapter 5, Subchapter 3 is the first place to look in determining which records are public. Ideally, a bright line should separate these two, but there are occasional close calls.
Our advice when there are close calls is to err on the side of openness. Indeed, the courts seem to follow this rule when asked to resolve disputes about whether or not certain records are public. See Finburg v. Murnane, 159 Vt. 431
The Town of Milton has implemented a comprehensive social media policy that offers direction for the agency's social media usage. In addition to providing guidance for content and comment management, the policy explicitly identifies social media records in Vermont as a public record. By complying with public access and retention mandates outlined in the Vermont Public Records Law, the policy mitigates potential litigation risks related to record-keeping.
Section 10: Public Records Law – Compliance
Town of Milton social media sites and their related social media content are subject to Vermont’s Access to Public Records Law. Information that is produced or acquired in the course of town business, including comments posted to town social media sites, may be a public record – thus, there should be no expectation of privacy in regards to the information posted on these social media outlets.
All files, documents, data, and other electronic messages created, received, or stored on the town’s computer system are open to review and regulation by the town and may be subject to the provisions of Vermont’s Public Records Law. A public record consists of any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of town business. Public records, regardless of format, are available for inspection and copying unless there is a specific statute exempting the record from public disclosure. Those records exempt from public inspection and copying are set out at 1 V.S.A. § 317(c).
The town’s official website and town social media sites shall clearly indicate that any articles and any other content or comments posted or submitted for posting in whatever format are subject to public disclosure. Content related to town business shall be maintained in an accessible format so that it can be produced in response to a public records request. Users shall be notified that public disclosure requests must be directed to the proper custodian of public records.
Section 11: Public Records Law – Retention
Relevant town records retention schedules apply to content on the town’s official website as well as to town social media sites. Content posted or submitted for posting shall be retained pursuant to Vermont’s Public Records Law in its standard format and in accordance with applicable disposition orders and retention schedules as established by the Vermont State Archivist.