Lawsuit to decide if e-mail, files are rubbish or records

A coalition of public-interest groups historians and researchers last month filed a lawsuit against the National Archives and Records Administration over a policy that allows agencies to destroy electronic mail and word processing files once they print out copies of those records.

The complaint Public Citizen v. Carlin asserts that the policy known as General Records Schedule 20 encourages agencies to delete electronic records without determining if the records have historical value. Electronic records the plaintiffs contend "may contain unique information" that would not be preserved in paper form and thus "permanently lost."

Susan Cooper a spokeswoman for NARA said the agency would not comment on the pending case. In the past agency officials have defended the policy as necessary partly because not every federal office has installed the equipment it needs to preserve its digital records in electronic form.

The case filed in U.S. District Court Washington D.C. follows up on a 1989 complaint by some of the same plaintiffs contesting the right of the White House to destroy e-mail records of the Reagan and Bush administrations. As part of his decision in that case Judge Charles Richey ruled in 1993 that e-mail messages are official records and all agencies must preserve them.

One issue raised by that case was that NARA's guidelines for records preservation did not clearly describe how electronic information should be kept and the policy now in question was meant to clarify the rules.

Although this policy has been in effect since 1995 the White House last month was the first agency to propose destroying what the plaintiffs thought were significant records - word processing files created by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Trade Representatives between 1986 and 1992.

Michael Tankersley senior staff attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group which filed the suit said the policy should distinguish between administrative records concerning mundane details of agency operations and program records that provide insight into government policies and the officials who made them. "These [guidelines] cover everything in that format regardless of whether it's administrative or programmatic " he said.

According to Eddie Becker a free-lance researcher who is one of the plaintiffs the electronic files are important because they enable historians to sort records and find patterns of information in ways that would be onerous to do with paper copies. He said NARA should be pushing agencies actively to adopt electronic record-keeping systems instead of allowing the conversion of electronic documents to paper.

NARA should give agencies more incentive to adopt electronic-records management systems said Margaret Hedstrom associate professor with the University of Michigan School of Information. "We're in a transitional period " however she added. "I don't think you do that by making electronic storage the only option."

Unlike the 1989 electronic-records suit in which the plaintiffs sought records concerning the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra policy Tankersley and Becker said they are not seeking information about any specific policies this time. But the word processing files now in question were among the records that were ordered preserved while the first case was being decided they said.

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