Courts, lawyers and states are increasingly treating these typed text messages as public documents subject to the same disclosure laws — including the federal Freedom of Information Act — that apply to e-mails and paper records.
"I don't care if it's delivered by carrier pigeon, it's a record," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri. "If you're using public time or your public office, you're creating public records every time you hit send."
A Texas judge agreed in December, ordering the city of Dallas to turn over e-mails written by some city officials as well as messages sent on handheld devices such as cellphones.
Journalists in Detroit are pressing for a similar ruling. Several media outlets, including the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press, have sued the city for access to text messages Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sent using his pager. Gannett also owns USA TODAY's parent company.