According to the Administrative Court of Appeal (Kammarrätten) in Sundsvall in northern Sweden, mobile phone text messages should be considered documents vis a vis Sweden’s Press Freedom Act (Tryckfrihetsförordningen).
It also doesn’t matter whether or not the messages are sent to a politician’s private telephone or one issued to him by the public authority for which he or she works.
What matters in determining whether the text messages are considered public documents or not, according to the court, is the content of the messages themselves.
Messages relating to the activity of a public authority and which are created, or are accessible by, a public servant, should be considered as having been received by the agency, which is in turn responsible for archiving the communications.
In addition, said the court, such archived text message communications are also eligible for release to the public as stipulated by Sweden’s generous open records laws.
The rulings stems from a request made by the local TV4 affiliate to the municipal executive board in Umeå in northern Sweden.
The television station wanted the board to produce all of the text messages sent and received by municipal commissioner Lennart Holmlund between June and December 2008.
The board refused the request, and the case eventually ended up in court.
In arguing against releasing the communications, the Umeå executive board said that mobile phone text messages should be considered telephone conversations rather than documents. Moreover, its lawyers argued, the municipality doesn’t have the technical means to save text messages, and the messages in question may very well already be erased.
But the court dismissed the board’s line of reasoning, asserting as well that the board is now obliged to review every text message to see if it should be made confidential which do.
According to the Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern – JK), which safeguard’s Sweden’s Press Freedom Act, the media used for communications is irrelevant when it comes to the question of whether a document should be considered public or not.
“Someone can write something in a chuck of liver pate and submit it as a public document,” said Chancellor of Justice lawyer Håkan Källgård to the TT news agency.
TV4’s Umeå affiliate was originally interested in learning more about the extent to which mobile phones were used on the job by local public servants.
The case gained attention when the station asked for communications from municipal boards in Sundsvall, Umeå, and Luleå.
“We saw, among other things, that Holmlund sent 217 text messages from Thailand, and that made us curious,” said news director Peter Swanberg.