Student journalists denied access to records of school president's fake emergency phone call

VIRGINIA — The student newspaper at a public universityin Virginia is seeking legal representation after open records requests for amock “emergency” phone call made by the university’s presidentwere denied.

At a campus safety walk in September 2009, University of Mary WashingtonPresident Judy Hample made a call from an emergency phone located on campusclaiming she was being mugged by an assailant with a gun, said Jessica Masulli,editor-in-chief of the university’s student newspaper, the Bullet.The president was not being mugged and instead was trying to test the universitypolice’s response, she said.

“It put people in danger because the police did not know it was atest and took it very seriously,” Masulli said.

Hample was never criminally charged for placing the fake emergency call.

The Bullet filed an open records request to the university underVirginia’s Freedom of Information Act on Jan. 25 seeking the audiorecording of the emergency phone call and police records of the criminalinvestigation, Masulli said.

The university denied the paper’s records request in a letter toMasulli stating, “evidence related to a criminal investigation are exemptfrom the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The Bullet appealed the denied request. The appeal was denied on thesame grounds.

“The recording was part of, and in fact the reason for a criminalinvestigation; albeit an investigation that took place in the past,” wroteGeorge Farrar, the associate vice president of university relations, in a letterto Masulli.

Farrar told the Student Press Law Center that there is no longer an ongoingcriminal investigation.

Executive Director for the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte, saidthat there is no rationale for the documents to stay confidential since thecriminal investigation is closed and there was never a prosecution.

The Bullet’s adviser Mike McCarthy said that he wants to makesure the university is adhering to Virginia’s open records law and this iswhy the paper plans to seek further legal action.

“The law clearly gives agency discretion to disclose if they chooseit. So this is not a case of ‘can’t’, it’s a case of

‘won’t’,” LoMonte said.

Hample announced Feb. 19 that she will be resigning as theuniversity’s president in June 2010, according to the Bullet.

The Bullet is investigating whether the safety walk incident isrelated to Hample’s resignation and audio of the emergency phone call mayprovide additional insight, Masulli said.

“We think people need to know what is going on at our school and theyshould be allowed to see all of the records from the police department regardingthis incident. It was a big deal at our school,” Masulli said.