School denies newspaper access to documents open to community

INDIANA — Ball State University officials made documents available to the campus community concerning prospective provost candidates Wednesday…with a catch.

Faculty, staff and students are allowed to see the candidate evaluation forms, but they first have to sign a document saying they will not distribute the information publicly.

The documents are evaluations of the provost candidates filled out by administrators, faculty, staff and students who interviewed the candidates.

“These [documents] are not being released, they are being shared with a large group of people…they are not public record,” said Heather Shupp, executive director of university communication.

That caused problems for editors of The Ball State Daily News, who are trying to cover the search for a new provost in the student newspaper.

Justin Hesser, managing editor of the Daily News, said he went to look at the evaluation forms Wednesday morning and was presented with a two sentence statement he had to sign saying he would look at the documents for his personal use only and not distribute the information publicly. When he protested, he said he was directed to speak to Shupp.

“She kept telling me it was an ethical thing and I said it’s a legal thing,” Hesser said.

In a letter to the editor published in the Daily News Sept. 30, Vice President O’Neal Smitherman defended the policy.

“We determined that these records would not be released to the media because we felt it would have a chilling effect if those wishing to offer feedback had to worry about their comments ending up in the press…. This was never intended to discourage discussion among members of the university community,” Smitherman wrote.

He said that Indiana’s access to public records law allows the university to share intra-agency documents “for the purpose of decision-making.” However, when asked to cite the law, he did not respond, instead directing all questions to Shupp. Shupp did cite a specific section of the Indiana public records law and said that she consulted with university counsel before implementing the policy.

Karen Davis, Indiana Public Access Counselor, said she had not been briefed in the particulars of Ball State University’s actions. But she said she could talk about the general requirements for invoking the law concerning intra-agency documents.

In Smitherman’s letter to the editor he said “the university may share such documents internally with whatever group of people is deemed appropriate.”

But Davis said she wasn’t sure that students could be classified as members of the university agency just by attending since they are not paid members of the staff or faculty.

She also said that generally the right to inspect or view the documents comes with the right to write down the information.

“I don’t know that their discretion goes that far,” Davis said about the statement university officials were requiring people to sign. “They can disclose it or not disclose it.”

The Daily News staff filed an open records request Thursday to obtain the documents. On Friday that request was denied. David Studinski, editor in chief of the newspaper, said after obtaining legal advice his next step will be to appeal the open records decision to the vice president of enrollment, marketing and communications.

“We prefer that it be resolved internally, but we’re not going to let it go,” Studinski said.

by Kim Peterson