SPLC, student journalist resolve public records dispute with Kan. community college

KANSAS — Acollege journalist and the Student Press Law Center have settled their lawsuitwith Johnson County Community College stemming from the school’s $24,000 pricetag for documents under an open records request.

Marcus Clem originally requested emails spanning sevenmonths between staff members in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,which was closed earlier this year, and the school quoted Clem $47,426, dueupfront. A revised request spanning the month of December 2010 had a $24,130.72estimate.

Clem and the SPLC sued the college in October, claiming the highfees violated state law.

The parties agreed to a reduced fee of $450 for about threemonths of documents, and dismissed the lawsuit Thursday.

Clem said he is happy to finally have the documents, whichtrack the months leading up to the departure of program director Jason Rozell.Still, he expressed concerns about two unreleased email attachments that werewithheld under the “personnel” exemption to the Kansas Open Records Act.

“What exactly happened is unknown to me, and even thoughwe’ve had some communication with Mr. Rozelle, he hasn’t been able to tell usbecause he’s pursuing his own case against the college,” Clem said. “But it isclear that the information in those attachments is something the college wantedto prevent being public knowledge despite several months of open recordsprocess and finally a lawsuit.”

Clem said he has turned the 213 pages of emails over to the Campus Ledger student newspaper, wherehe no longer works.

Joe Sopcich, vice president of administrative services forJCCC, said the settlement benefits both sides.

“When you can stay out of the court room, it’s a success,and I think for everyone in this case it appears to be like a win-win for allparties involved,” Sopcich said.

He said the original estimate included potential costs associatedwith hiring an outside contractor to obtain the emails from the school’sarchives. He said the college was able to retrieve the emails without hiringthe contractor, and thus the actual cost was $450.

Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director, said such highestimates effectively keep the documents out of the hands of a typicalrequestor.

“What is most noxious about JCCC’s policy was theirrequirement of full advance payment of the estimated cost, meaning that aperson would have to ante up potentially $40,000 just to get the requestprocessed, even if the ultimate cost turned out to be $450,” LoMonte said.“Obviously, no requester is going to be able to dig into his pocket and come upwith $40,000, so that was equivalent to denying the request outright, and thecollege knew that very well.”

According to the CampusLedger, JCCC is examining its KORA policy, and Sopcichidentified some areas with the policy he hopes to improve.

“In this case, we followed the policy to the letter,” Sopcichsaid. “I think there could be some improvement with regard to communication andthings like that we can work on, but as far as that policy goes and what ouractions were, we feel that we did everything that we needed to do.”

LoMonte hopes the school alters its policy to prevent asimilar situation in the future.

“We understand that the college and its board of trusteesare in the process of reexamining JCCC’s open-records policy,” he said, “and weare encouraged that they recognize reforms are needed and we hope that gettingrid of this unwarranted ‘full payment in advance’ policy will be at the top ofthe list.”