States revise access laws

Three states have passed significant pieces of legislation this semester affecting public access to government information. Some of these bills have increased access to information for high school and college journalists while others have decreased it.In Pennsylvania, the Governor Edward Rendell signed a bill Feb. 14 that updated the state’s more-than-50-year-old open records law. The old version was regarded as one of the worst in the nation.Pennsylvania attorney Craig Staudenmaier said the main problem with the older law was its assumption that government records were closed unless requestors could prove documents fit into narrow categories that mandated their disclosure — such as proving that records concerned an agency’s use of public funds.The updated Right-To-Know Law now shifts the burden, making all records open unless a public entity can prove the information should be exempt from release.The new law will go into effect in January 2009 and requires that public institutions designate one person to handle open-records requests. It also creates a new agency, the Office of Open Records, to mediate conflicts over record requests.Not all state-supported colleges are subject to the law’s access requirements. The new law designates Temple University, Lincoln University, University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University as “state-related” institutions, which are subject to relaxed requirements. These schools must submit annual reports that disclose administrative salaries and tax information.While Pennsylvania passed sweeping and long-overdue amendments to its open-records law, Virginia eroded a small part of its law.Gov. Tim Kaine in March signed HB 407, which will allow Virginia State University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to withhold information about the identities of donors who request anonymity.These schools are affected because they do not use a separate foundation to collect donations. Under Virginia law, universities that use foundations to manage endowments and gifts to the university already could withhold the identities of anonymous donors.Proponents argued that the bill would guarantee that donors requesting anonymity would continue to give to the universities. Opponents argued that it cripples oversight of the university and could allow anonymous donors to influence these universities for personal gain.Open-government advocates in Mississippi were successful, after trying for several years, in passing HB 474, an update to the state’s Public Records Act that will allow greater public access to police incident reports, which previously were not specified as public.The law, signed by Gov. Haley Barbour March 31, will apply to all public police departments, including public college or university police departments; it will not affect private colleges or private security forces that do not have the power to arrest.The law requires that incident reports include “the name and identification of each person charged with and arrested for the alleged offense, the time, the date and location of the alleged office, and the property involved, to the extent this information is known.”