Student reporter witnesses mixed results in Ky. open-records audit

Citizens’ rights to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened everyday, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on efforts by student journalists to access information and report in the sunshine.

KENTUCKY — As the crime beat reporter for the University of Kentucky student newspaper, Dariush Shafa expects to deal with defiance from lawbreakers every day. But The Kernel reporter never expected to face defiance and intimidation from a jailer, who refused to provide the public records Shafa requested.

The Kentucky Open Records Law specifies that anyone can gain access to all records of public and law-enforcement agencies. On Oct. 21, Shafa, along with more than 100 Kentucky college students and dozens of Kentucky reporters and editors, participated in a statewide open-records audit of 114 Kentucky counties. Results of the audit were released Feb. 9 in Kentucky newspapers.

“Everyone was instructed to conduct themselves as an ordinary citizen because the Kentucky Open Records Law stipulates that any citizen can ask to see certain specified public records,” said David Greer, member services director for the Kentucky Press Association.

Shafa, a junior at the University of Kentucky, was assigned to request the Montgomery County Jail’s 24-hour jail log, a public record that displays the names of all incarcerated inmates. He spoke with jailer Dewayne Myers and two other jail officials, who refused to produce the documents.

“The jailer and two other gentlemen backed me against the wall and demanded to see my identification when I asked to see the log, and they demanded to know why I had asked for the log,” Shafa said. “As David Greer instructed, I avoided their questions and I didn’t tell them who I was until I felt it would be better to give them my identification and get out of there.”

Although Shafa said the three men never came within arms-reach of him, the journalism student said they positioned themselves so that he could not pass them.

“They would not let me leave unless I gave them my identification,” Shafa said. “I was very nervous because at that point I had no idea what Myers was up to. At that point he did not know that he was breaking the law and at that point I didn’t know what kind of a person I was dealing with.”

Myers denied any use of intimidation with Shafa, and he said that Shafa could have left at any time, but he continued to demand that Myers give him the 24-hour log.

“I don’t think that’s intimidation,” said Myers, whose position is an elected office in Kentucky. “I think that’s a procedure we have to go through. We have to know what we’re dealing with. We have to know what we’re doing in reference to giving information to someone that could backfire on the jail.”

Shafa said he felt leery before entering the jail to request documents because Greer, who trained Shafa before the audit, warned him that jailers tend to be the most reluctant to hand out public records.

The Kentucky Press Association equipped auditors with computer print-outs of the open records law so the auditors would appear as average citizens trying to look up a law.

“When I showed it to him the jailer said, ‘That law does not apply to us,’” Shafa said.

Confidential information is contained in the 24-hour log, Myers said, which should prevent the log from being made public.

“We just don’t come right out and give records without proper notification about what’s going on,” he said. “We just don’t turn records over to people we don’t know.”

No other students, reporters, or editors encountered the intimidation Shafa allegedly experienced, Greer said, although others obtaining jail records were also denied.

The Kentucky Press Association began organizing October’s statewide audit two years ago, which grew to involve The Associated Press, newspapers across the state, and students from colleges and universities in the state.

“From there, we began seeking information as to how audits had been conducted in other states, and found that to be very valuable information,” Greer said. “Then we began a process of finding newspaper editors across the state that could actually be placed in charge of the counties in their region.”

Shafa became involved with the audit when the University of Kentucky’s student media adviser Chris Poore asked students if they wanted to participate. Shafa said at least 10 University of Kentucky students joined.

If any journalists acted as auditors, Greer said they were assigned a county that was far-removed from where their paper circulates to limit the chance that someone would recognize them as a journalist.

All auditors were trained before they were sent to request documents, and Shafa said he had a particularly helpful experience in his training with Greer.

“I actually play-acted [a jail situation] with him,” Shafa said. “So I was prepared for that kind of thing, but I didn’t think it would go this far, to the point where they would use intimidation. It was well beyond what I was expecting.”

In each of the 114 counties, auditors requested records from four different venues: a city hall to obtain a city budget; the county courthouse to obtain travel expenses of the county judge executive–the highest elected office in each Kentucky county; a public school board of education to obtain the contract of the superintendent; and the county jail to obtain a copy of the jail log.

“The result was that we found compliance to the Kentucky open-records law very high at city halls, very high at county courthouses, about 60 percent at school board offices and it was the lowest at county jails,” Greer said. “Many of the auditors ran into problems when seeking the jail log. … Many of the jailers that we encountered were not familiar with public records and many replied to the auditors that that law did not pertain to their office.”

Although his experience was unsuccessful, Shafa said he still wants to fight to gain open records across the state.

“Information is the most important thing in our society today,” he said. “Without information, you can’t make a good decision. All of this information is what gives you the ability to have the freedom of choice. Information is the basic tool you have for democracy. Without information you’re making a blind decision, and that’s no decision at all.”

–By Elisabeth Salemme

Read previous Sunshine Week coverage.