OHIO — A student-run, statewide audit of public records access at public universities in Ohio uncovered dozens of instances of non-compliance with state open records laws.
Student journalists at Ohio University were repeatedly denied records or questioned about their intentions when they approached university offices at 15 state colleges and universities in December and January. According to the preliminary findings of the public records audit released last week, nearly 60 percent of the records requested — including faculty salaries, reported crimes on campus and the names of university donors — could not be obtained.
Ohio University’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists organized the audit. After receiving training in Ohio’s public records laws, 25 student members of the organization fanned out across Ohio during their school’s six-week winter break. They visited the administration and department offices of universities in their area during regular business hours and asked for public records without identifying themselves or the reason for their request.
Rather than making official records requests through the schools’ central administrations, the purpose of the audit was to investigate open records compliance “among the rank and file,” said Bill Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University and adviser to the university’s SPJ chapter. Reader said the students were surprised to discover their own university, which did not grant a single records request, fared worst among Ohio universities.
“There is a general culture of suspicion that we’ve encountered here,” he said. The students were stonewalled, he said, and only referred to the school’s legal department after they provided their names.
Nicolette Dioguardi, associate director of legal affairs at Ohio University, did not respond to calls for comment. But she told The Athens News, a twice-weekly newspaper in Athens, that university policy requires all public records requests to be directed to the legal affairs office.
“We probably have not done a real complete training of the people ‘in the trenches’ to know exactly what the policy is,” Dioguardi said in the Athens News article.
Erin McCarty, a sophomore magazine journalism major and president of Ohio University’s SPJ chapter, audited the academic and administrative offices at Wright State University in Dayton.
She said she encountered the most resistance when asking for a list of university donors. Even after supplying her name and the reason for her request, McCarty said she was still denied access to the list of donors.
“I felt it was really uncomfortable, and felt like I was on trial,” she said of her auditing experience. “And I don’t deserve to be on trial. I didn’t feel like I should be treated like a suspect.”
It was “very impractical” for the students to approach university employees and expect records to be handed over, said Claire Wagner, spokeswoman for Miami University in Oxford, one of the universities audited by the students.
She said the information sought by the auditors may not be on one list, or parts of the record would have to be redacted, a process that could take several days to complete. If the students had asked for the records through the public affairs office, more records could have been provided, Wagner said, although it might have taken a day or two to produce the records.
“The media in major markets have said we are very accessible,” she said.
Wagner said the university does offer education sessions on public records laws for its employees, but said she did not know whether such sessions are required or what percentage of university staff attends them. It is “fine training” for student journalists to attempt the information audit, she said, but the project could have been “refined.” The problem, she said, was that students did not reveal any information about themselves when initially asking for the records.
“Let’s face it — relationships help people know why you want [the records] and what’s going on,” Wagner said. “If you’re up-front, someone will be more up-front with you.”
Meredith Heagney, vice-president of Ohio University’s chapter of the SPJ and coordinator of the FOI audit, said she “completely understood” Wagner’s point about offering personal information when requesting public records.
“When you go in and seem like you have shady or malicious intentions, of course you’re going to meet with that kind of attitude,” said Heagney, a senior magazine journalism major.
But the public records audit was not about personal relationships, she said.
“It was about the law, and according to the law, you don’t have to give a bit of information,” Heagney said. “We were not dishonest, we just didn’t give any information. The fact of the matter is that we were testing the law as the law is written and we were denied.”
Heagney said she was disappointed by the results of the public records audit. She said when asking for public records from university employees at the Medical University of Ohio near her home in Toledo, she felt intimidated. The employees, she said, seemed uneasy and confused.
Heagney said her journalism experiences and auditing training “steeled” her against their perplexed reactions. If a regular, untrained resident had attempted to ask for the same records, they would have felt “incredibly intimidated,” she said.
The audit’s documentation of records denials and instances of non-compliance illustrate a general ignorance of Ohio’s public records laws, Heagney said.
“[The audit] made me realize it isn’t some closed record conspiracy,” she said. “There’s a lack of awareness.”