SUNSHINE WEEK: Getting records from student governments

Also this week

Last year’s stories

A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report arethreatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned theweeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize theimportance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebratingSunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourageopen government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons andlet the sunshine in.

Under state and federal sunshine laws, the press is supposed to have accessto government and public records — therefore, student journalists shouldhave access to student government records, right? In many cases, studentjournalists at college newspapers around the country find out it’s not thateasy. But the student press has the important job of holding student governmentmembers accountable just like any other elected officials.

Requesting records, from allocation budgets to meeting minutes, is animportant aspect of covering student governments. In February, the Student PressLaw Center asked for records from more than a dozen colleges — public andprivate, large and small — to find out how well different studentgovernments responded to open records requests.

Requesting the recordsThe easiest way to get records is simplyto call and ask. If student government members ask what your reason is forgetting the records, it will probably make things easier if you just tell them,though you are not required to give a reason under most sunshine laws. It helpsto be as specific as possible about what records you are requesting. Moststudent governments we asked complied with our requests, although some respondedfaster than others. Student government members at the University of Illinois atSpringfield and Rutgers University, for example, were very helpful and respondedto our requests for minutes from specific meetings the same day we contactedthem. But we had to call the University of Massachusetts at Lowell studentgovernment several times and wait more than a week to get meeting minutes fromthem.

We found that student governments asked more questions when we requestedannual budgets, but most schools, such as the University of California at SantaBarbara and the College of William and Mary, sent copies of their most recentannual budgets in a timely manner and without difficulty. If you are lucky, yourstudent government, like the ones at the University of California campuses atDavis and San Diego, has an updated Web site that houses copies of all theirmeeting minutes and annual budgets.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst was one of the most difficultschools to get an annual budget from. We had to contact several StudentGovernment Association members before they directed us to the student governmentpresident, who sent us the budget via e-mail after more than a week. DerrickPerkins, a news editor at the school’s paper, the Daily Collegian, saidreporters have had trouble getting information from the SGA in the past. Membersdo end up giving reporters the needed information in the end, although the SGAhas been known to “stonewall and put off giving information,” he said.

Legal statusArguably, most student governments at publicuniversities are subject to state open records laws because they often allocatestudent fees and make decisions on behalf of the student body — bothgovernmental functions, said Charles Davis, executive director of the NationalFreedom of Information Coalition.

To find out if your student government is subject to state sunshine laws,you must look at what the definition of a public body is in your state. InIllinois, the attorney general’s Web site says a public bodies can include stateuniversities and colleges, “including but not limited to committees andsubcommittees which are supported in whole or in part by tax revenue, or whichexpend tax revenue.” Most state laws will not specifically mention studentgovernments, but you can make a good argument for them being public bodies.Under Illinois law, you could argue a student government is a public body if itallocates university funds to student organizations. You can also have astronger argument if you can show the student government was empowered by astate-appointed Board of Regents, Davis said.

If your student government refuses to give you public records, Davissuggests contacting your state attorney general’s office and asking for a formalopinion on whether your student government is a public body. You can presentyour student government with those documents to help your cause, he said.

“We can generally state that most public universities ought to be subjectto sunshine laws,” Davis said. “These are quasi-governmental bodies makingdecisions about student dollars.”

The Student Press Law Center has compiled a state-by-state guide that looksat state sunshine laws and their applicability to student government groups. Itis free and available online here.

If all else fails, you can submit a formal request for open records. TheStudent Press Law Center Web site has an automated letter generator — allyou need to do is fill in the blanks.

Private universities Private schools are in a different realmwhen it comes to open records. With the exception of some campus crimestatistics, their federal nonprofit tax return (IRS Form 990) and otherfederally mandated reports that include information, for example, on graduationrates, athletic budgets and foreign investments, private universities generallyare not required by law to provide most records to journalists. However, themajority of student governments at private universities that we requestedrecords from did not have any qualms about releasing meeting minutes and annualbudgets. The Stanford University student government sent a copy of their budgetfaster than the one at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Similarly,Boston College and Northwestern University responded quickly to requests forminutes and budgets.

The only college out of more than a dozen public and private universitieswe requested records from that denied our request for records was ShenandoahUniversity. When we e-mailed the student government treasurer, he said he was”advised not to” release the information. We then contacted student governmentadviser Don Appiarius, who said he did not feel comfortable releasing the annualbudget to the SPLC because another SPLC reporter — working on a separateSunshine Week story — had called to request crime incident reports he saidwere protected under federal privacy laws.

“Generally, we don’t give out information just for the sake of it,”Appiarius said.

In short, the majority of student governments easily released their records– some even without us having to give a reason. But if your studentgovernment is being difficult, be persistent and do not hesitate to send aformal request for records if you are at a public university. It is vital forstudent journalists to have access to entities that make decisions that couldaffect the entire campus community.