Sunshine laws on winning streak

Any cowboy will tell you: The sun goes down in the west. But for newsorganizations across the country, there has been plenty of sunshine west of theMississippi River. A string of rulings in open-records and open-meetings caseswere issued in state courts this fall.

In Colorado, the August release oftapes from closed-door meetings by the Mesa State College board oftrustees meant an end to a six-month legal dispute between the school newspapereditor and the board.

The tapes were released as part of a settlement from alawsuit filed in March by Megan Fromm, a Mesa State junior and the editor of thestudent newspaper, the Criterion.

The recordings contained theboard’s discussions of their search for a new university president. According tothe Colorado Open Meetings Law, public bodies must hold open meetings whenconducting official business. This includes personnel searches unless thecandidate requests a closed session.

Fromm said the newly established boardhad been arrogant in its dealings with students and often alienated the collegecommunity in the process.“[The lawsuit] was the student body’s way ofsaying to the board, ‘You work for us,’” said Fromm, currently ajournalism intern at the Student Press Law Center.

Since the settlementstudents have noticed an increased effort from the board of trustees tocommunicate with the college community.“The board is back to businessas usual and trying to move forward with their job,” said student bodyPresident Jared Wright.

The lawsuit marked just the second time thatColorado’s open-records executive session stature was used in court togain access to documents.

“There needs to be a higher standard ofaccountability that public boards are held to in Colorado,” Wright said.“[The ruling] sent a message to other boards that this could happen to usif we don’t follow the letter and spirit of the law.”

Thoughstudents at Mesa State College came away from their access settlement smiling,students at the University of Fairbanks at Alaska could not do the same.

Staff members at the Sun Star student newspaper wanted to see thearrest records of a local government official, the government official wantedprivacy. In the end, a compromise was met: the police reports of the arrest werereleased to the university’s student newspaper, but critical information wasomitted.

The records stemmed from the Aug. 30, 2003, arrest of Rick Solie, amember of the North Star Borough Assembly, the legislative body of Fairbanks.Solie was charged with driving under the influence, refusing to submit to aBreathalyzer test and driving on the wrong side of the road. Solie was arrestedon the University of Alaska campus by university police.

The Septemberrelease of the records ended a yearlong legal battle between the university andthe Sun Star, which sued the university in October 2003 to gain access tothe documents.

The university and Solie contended that disclosing therecords would constitute an unwarranted invasion on the privacy of the car’spassenger, Cherie Solie, who is Solie’s wife.

When the records were handedover to the Sun Star most of the information requested was omitted, aspart of a settlement, and the paper received a “bare bones” police trafficarrest report, according to Brian O’Donoghue, Sun Star adviser andpresident of the Alaska Press Club. Despite the compromise, Sun StarEditor Robinson Duffy called the ruling a “symbolicvictory.”  

Solie’s attorney, Bill Sattenburg, said it was in theSun Star‘s best interest to settle the case.

“It was quite obviousthat the court wasn’t going to buy the Sun Star‘s argument,” Sattenburgsaid. “The public doesn’t have a right to know when it’s a privatelifestyle.”

O’Donoghue said that if the court were to rule against thenewspaper, it would have been detrimental to future pushes for access across thestate.

“We decided to settle rather than have [a limitation on accessbased on privacy] spelled out in court,” he said.

Despite the SunStar’s compromise, O’Donoghue said the case was the first time inFairbanks that a news organization has gone to court over access. Even more, thecase inspired student journalists across the state to push for access to publicrecords, O’Donoghue said, and for that “it served its purpose.”

Atthe Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, fighting for access is atradition.

“That’s one paper that has had the resources andinterest to pursue access in this state,” O’Donoghue said.

The paperrecently won a case for access involving settlement records against theAnchorage School District. The paper wanted the public release of settlementrecords involving the school district and the parents of a student who attemptedsuicide on school grounds.

The Anchorage Daily News asserted thatsettlement agreements

involving the school district are paid for with publicfunds and should be disclosed.

Though the superintendent said the settlementagreements will no longer be kept private, the Anchorage Daily News isseeking an enforceable court ruling requiring the school district to keepsettlement agreements public.

In Kansas, it was a conglomerate ofnews organizations that successfully sued the University of Kansas for access tothe employment contract of the school’s athletic director, LewPerkins.

World Company, publisher of the local newspaper, the Kansas PressAssociation and The Associated Press brought the suit against the universityafter concern about how the university was spending public funds.

Accordingto World Company Attorney Gerald Cooley, since the ruling universitiesthroughout Kansas have been forthcoming with contract information regardingschool athletic departments. In the weeks following the release of Perkins’contract, the Lawrence Journal-World has published articles analyzingemployment contracts of KU’s football coach and its basketball coach. Thecontract of Kansas State University’s football coach also ended up in the pagesof local newspapers.

Cooley said the release of the employment contracts wassignificant because the public can now see how money is being spent at stateinstitutions. Cooley predicts that the ruling will renew a push by Kansasnews organizations to get a clause put in the state open-records act that willsubject publicly funded employment contracts to disclosure. For now, he said,the outlook on access to records in the state is looking positive.

“I thinkit will be free and open for a while,” he said.