ARLINGTON, Va. — Jonathan Anderson, former Editor-in-Chief of the UWM Post at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the 2009 winner of the “College Press Freedom Award” for his tireless advocacy in pressing for greater access to public records from the university and its student government association.
The annual College Press Freedom Award is sponsored by the Student PressLaw Center and by the Associated Collegiate Press to honor an individual or group that has demonstrated courage in advancing free-press rights for college journalists. The award will be presented Oct. 31 at the National College Journalism Convention in Austin, Texas, organized by the ACP and by College Media Advisers.
“Jonathan Anderson and the Post have been relentless in advocating for their university, and for all Wisconsin colleges, to honor their disclosure obligations so that the taxpayers can understand how their government agencies are being run,” said Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director of the StudentPress Law Center.
In April 2009, Anderson and the Post, joined by the staff of the UWM television news program Panthervision, submitted a 147-page memorandum to the Wisconsin Attorney General outlining the legal reasons that student governments statewide should be open to the public like all other government agencies. The Post had been refused access to records about the activities of UWM student government, including records documenting the use of state travel money by student officials.
“This award is a clear indication that the college press have an important and unique role to play in the ever-increasing challenge to shine light on government. Every day, at campuses all across the nation, student journalists are filing public records requests with their university administrations, student governments and elected officials — fighting for the public’s right to know, and, in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, ‘revealing the workings of government,'” said Anderson, 22, a native of Hobart, Wis., who now serves as the Post’s special projects editor.
LoMonte said the award is especially timely because Anderson’s battle with UWM helped bring to light fundamental flaws in the way educational institutions and the U.S. Department of Education interpret federal student privacy laws to block access to newsworthy information. The Family EducationalRights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) requires that schools and colleges keep grades and other personal student information confidential, but LoMonte said colleges widely misapply — or intentionally abuse — the law to withhold public records that contain no private student information.
LoMonte said the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been among the worst abusers of FERPA to deny legitimate open-records requests for information in which there is no valid privacy interest, including requests by the UWM Post for:
- The names of school administrators who sit on disciplinary committees enforcing UWM student conduct rules.
- Transcripts and recordings of meetings of a university committee on student activity fees, which meets in public and on which students serve as voting members.
“This award recognizes that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee does an excellent job of teaching journalism, but a disgracefully bad job in complying with its obligations under the open records act,” LoMonte said.” Anyone who is considering attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee should ask why this college works so hard to conceal information that other public institutions would readily disclose.”
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.