SUNSHINE WEEK: A look at how college journalists can use open records

This week’s stories

Last year’s stories

Some college student journalists might not know it, but attheir fingertips lay access to information about lawsuits, donations, salaries,terrorist watch lists and more.

“Most student journalistsprobably do not understand the value of open records law but many workingjournalists don’t either,” said Diana Huffman, a media law professorat the University of Maryland. “Reporters tend to think the only way toget a story is to interview someone or get someone to leak information tothem.”

Huffman said that getting into the habit of filing openrecords requests regularly is a good idea.

“Set a goal offiling [a freedom of information] request every month,” Huffman said.

“Students can use [such a request] not just for a particular story butalso as a source of story ideas. Sometimes the information you receive leads youto uncover a story you had never considered.”

To help collegestudent journalists come up with story ideas, the Student Press Law Center hascompiled some examples from recent years where journalists used open records atthe college level to dig deeper.

Each of these cases was based on theindividual state open records law; so the conclusion might not be the same inevery state and would probably only apply to public schools. But these cases maygive college journalists ideas of the kinds of records they could be seeking tobetter cover their school.

Not justthe salary, but also the perks

Using open records requests,journalists were able to follow the money trail and force the University ofMaryland to release employment contract information for its coaches.

In 2002 a sports reporter forThe Baltimore Sun requested theemployment contract information of head football coach Ralph Friedgen under theMaryland Public Information Act. The paper also requested “any separateletters of understanding, side letters or similar documents specifyingincentives, bonuses, broadcast agreements, athletic footwear contracts and othermatters concerning the terms and conditions of [Coach Friedgen’s]employment andcompensation.”

The Sun made a similar request for the contract information of Gary Williams, head coachof the men’s basketball team.

The university denied bothrequests, citing exemptions in state open-records law protecting personnelrecords and some financial information from disclosure. The Sun then filed suit in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County.

On April 15, 2004, the Court of Appeals of Maryland ruled that the university must make all the details of its employment contractspublic.

The Sun’sinitiative to request more than just the salary figures is a good example forstudent journalists to follow, said Student Press Law Center Legal Fellow AdamGoldstein.

Non-salaried compensation that student journalists shouldlook for include housing, flying first class on flights, free automobiles andother expenses billed to the university, Goldsteinsaid.

Incident report sees light ofday

After two years and a lengthy court battle,The Daily O’Collegian, the studentnewspaper at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, obtained an incidentreport on a recent graduate who is now an NFL running back.

Theschool had refused to release records relating to a 2003 incident involvingformer college football star Vernand Morency. Morency, who now plays for theHouston Texans, was accused of rape, but school investigators could notsubstantiate the claim.

A court ordered the school to release therecords in January 2005. Morency appealed, but filed a motion to dismiss on Aug.29, thereby releasing the documents to the newspaper. The paper ran a story onthe records Aug. 31.

“It was a victory for collegiate journalism andsomething I’m proud of being a part of, if only on the fringes,” saidformer Daily O’Collegian Editorin Chief Jared Janes.

Spotlight onparking tickets

In December 1998, Maryland’s high court ruledthat information about unpaid parking tickets charged to student athletes andcoaches as well as NCAA records of related violations must be open to thepublic.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruling came two years after The Diamondback, the student newspaperat the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, filed suit against theuniversity under the state open records law.

The University hadrefused The Diamondback access to therecords about the student athletes, arguing the records were exempt from thestate open records law because they were “education records” covered by theFamily Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly known as the BuckleyAmendment.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled otherwise, sayingthat the education records covered by FERPA did not include records of parkingtickets or NCAA violations.

“The legislative history of [FERPA]indicates that the statute was not intended to preclude the release of anyrecord simply because the record contained the name of a student,” the court’sopinion in Kirwan v. The Diamondbacksaid. “Congress intended to prevent educational institutions from operating insecrecy.

“We hold that ‘education records’ within the meaning of[FERPA] do not include records of parking tickets or correspondence between theNCAA and the University regarding a student athlete accepting a loan to payparking tickets.”

Keeping thedoor open on student government meetings

Last November theCourt of Appeals of New York ruled that decision-making bodies at publiccolleges are required to abide by the state’s freedom of information laws.

The ruling came after the College Senate at Hostos CommunityCollege, a school in the City University of New York system, denied two studentsaccess to public meetings in 2001. One student wanted to attend a meeting wherethe senate voted by secret ballot to change the curriculum. The court ruled thatthe Senate was wrong in denying access and also, as a decision-making body, wasnot allowed to vote by secret ballot. The other student wanted to present astudent petition regarding a student protest.

Most public agenciesare not obligated to release some information; for example, schools usually keepstudents’ grades confidential, Goldstein said. But problems arise as towhat exactly is exempted legally from public disclosure and what is earmarked aspublic information.

“Who makes the call as to what needs to besecret?” Goldstein said. “Sometimes administrators don’t knowwhere to draw the line. Making the wrong call isn’t so much a problem asbeing willing to admit to making a mistake.”