'Sunshine' forecast for La. minors

LOUISIANA — When a 16-year-old Michael Wayne Barker requestedrecords from his school district about computer- and technology-relatedpurchases, he had no intention to start a yearlong journey to change stateopen-records laws — he just wanted to make a few money-savingsuggestions.

“My original intention was to review the records andmake a recommendation on how we could attempt to save money on technologypurchases. I am very knowledgeable in computers, and I felt we could save moneyin our purchases,” said Barker, who at 17 will be a senior this fall atJena High School in Jena, La.

The result of that original intention is anew amendment to the Louisiana Public Records Act that allows minors access tocopies of public records. Prior to the amendment, Louisiana was the only statethat did not allow minors to use open-records laws to gain access to publicinformation.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed the amendment into law inJuly.

In June 2003, Barker sent an open-records request to the LaSalleParish School Board, but he did not get a prompt response.

“I mademy first request — ignored, my second request — ignored, my thirdrequest — ignored,” he said.

After sending a fourth letterand visiting the board’s office, Barker finally heard back from his schoolboard.

“I received a two-page letter saying my request was rejectedbecause I am not the age of majority, and that I was ‘not entitled to thatinformation,’” he said.

The school board declined to commenton the issue.Because of his age at the time of the request, theLouisiana Public Records Act did not require school officials to grant hisrequest, although the law did not prohibit them from doing so.

To obtainpublic records in the state, the law required a person to have reached the ageof majority, which is 18 in Louisiana.

His request denied, Barkercontacted adult friend Fannie Godwin, an activist from Baton Rouge, to retrievethe records for him and started to research his rights. He found a report by thePublic Affairs Research Council of Louisiana recommending that the state removethe age requirement on the Louisiana Public Records Act.

“I wentthrough all the research to find that Louisiana was the only state with an agerequirement — the only state,” he said. “We needed to takethis negative and turn it into a positive.”

Barker, who describeshimself as “the kind of person who, when I say I’m going to dosomething, I do it,” was now on a mission. 

“I’vealways been interested in politics, and I knew that if you wanted to change astate law you would have to go through your senator or representatives,”he said.

With research in hand, Barker contacted his staterepresentative, T.D. “Tommy” Wright, D-Jena. Upon sharing his storywith Wright, the state representative was on board.

“He came to meand told me that he was requesting information from our school board and theywouldn’t give it to him because he was a minor,” Wright said.“Once I learned that he went to numerous school boards meeting and askedquestions and they would just sit there and let him stand, you know, justintimidating him …that really was the fuel in the fire in me helpinghim.”

Although he was unfamiliar with the age requirement of theopen-records law, Wright said that upon learning about it, he knew it wassomething that was not in the public’s best interest.

“Youwant to encourage as much openness in government as you possibly can, and [theold law] dissuades anyone younger from getting involved in the process,”he said.

Wright became the sponsor of House Bill 492, legislation thatwould amend the Louisiana Public Records Act. Between traveling back andforth between Baton Rouge to testify before the state Legislature, writing hisrepresentatives and going to the school board meetings where he asked about therecords, Barker estimated the process took weeks out of his schedule.The bill passed in the House, but ran into a setback in the Senate. 

Barker’s senator, Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro, refused to handle the billin the senate. Ellington does not handle any of Wright’s bills because “continuing conflicts” between the politicians, The TownTalk, an area newspaper, reported. After getting Sen. Jay Dardenne,R-Baton Rouge, to handle the bill in the Senate, it passed June 20. 

“This law will bring us in-line with other states and it willencourage young people that are in high school working on civics projects orlearning about state government or expressing a desire, maybe younger than manyof their peers, to get involved in local or state government,” Wrightsaid. “I think it’s a win for the public …and a win for minorsthat we have taken a step forward on their behalf.” 

Althoughthe new amendment removes the age restriction, minors are only allowed copies ofofficial documents, not the documents themselves.

The 17-year-oldsaid he plans to request again the files he was denied over a yearago.

“I will still be 17 when this law goes into effect on August15 and I will be making a public records request to the school board. I amhoping that when they choose to grant my request I will be able to come up witha recommendation [to help the district save money on technologypurchases],” Barker said. 

Craig Freeman, assistant professor atLouisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, saidthe new law gives high school journalists new opportunities for what they cancover.

“It allows student journalists to have more tools toinvestigate the bodies that have some control over them,” hesaid.

Freeman added that the law would only be beneficial if high schoolmedia advisers make students aware of their new right toinformation.Barker said he hopes the law will help empower otherpolitically active minors and high school journalists.

“I dobelieve that [minors who request public records] need to be taken seriously and,if not, I hope that minor would do what is necessary to get that record,”Barker said. “Look at what I did’I used information I learned in civicsclass and got a law changed.”

LAW: R.S. 44:31 (B) and R.S. 32(c) (1)(d)