TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Hang on tightly to your FOI access — the legislature is back in session

If legislative sponsors in New York get their way, it soon will be unlawful for college athletic departments to provide a team roster to The Washington Post, ESPN or any other national news organization.

It sounds crazy, but it’s the result of a pair of privacy-on-steroids bills, S2357 and A8474, filed last year in the New York legislature and awaiting consideration this session.

These measures — which began as limited and well-intentioned efforts to protect student confidentiality and morphed during committee hearings into something much more — are emblematic of the mischief that sweeps the country this time of year, when state legislatures typically come back into session.

A survey by American Journalism Review found that the number of reporters assigned to cover state capitols declined 32 percent between 2003 and 2009. A one-third decrease — and there is no reason to think that the erosion has reversed in the last three years — is a crippling blow considering that state government was already grossly under-covered compared with local governments or Washington.

The loss of vigilant watchdogs has emboldened government-secrecy advocates to push for audaciously broad — or simply ill-thought-out — exemptions to state open-records and open-meetings laws that, in years past, would have been too brazen to consider.

The New York bills would prohibit any school or college from disclosing any personally identifiable information about any student — even with the student and parents’ consent — to any for-profit organization other than a “local newspaper” or “sports related publication.” That means no disclosure to national newspapers (such as USA Today) or to broadcasters of even the most basic and harmless “name, rank and serial number” information about a student — even a student who is performing in a play, competing in athletics, or receiving an academic prize.

S2357 made it all the way through the state Senate last session without much notice, but died in the Assembly. So far in 2012, neither bill has advanced out of committee — which may signal that someone has actually taken the time to, you know, read them.

Other examples include:

  • In South Carolina, legislators are proposing a sweeping change that would let police agencies withhold almost any information from the public before a criminal investigation has been completed. Normally, the public and press are entitled at least to see an “incident report” that describes the what, where and when of each reported crime. But H 4740 would allow police and prosecutors to withhold essentially any information that might one day be used in a criminal prosecution. Since it often takes years to “close” a criminal investigation, a large percentage of reported crimes could go totally unseen by the public.
  • In Hawaii, county governing boards have convinced the influential House speaker to introduce legislation relaxing their legal duty to give reasonable public notice of the matters to be considered at commission meetings. HB 2742 would give county councils the same exemption from Hawaii’s open-meetings act that the legislature itself enjoys.
These measures are illustrative of the kind of closed-government proposals for which all media — including the student media — must remain watchful.

While not every student media organization can have a physical presence at the Capitol, it’s easier than ever to have a virtual presence, since every state’s legislature makes information available online.

Most states offer a text-searchable database of bills, and it should be someone’s responsibility at every good-sized college news outlet to do periodic keyword searches for terms of interest. Among them should be the name of the state’s open-government laws, e.g., “freedom of information” or “open meeting” or whatever the official name of the statute may be.

If open-government statutes are being revised, journalists should ask why — and if the proposal is confusing or doesn’t make sense, call the state press association or newspaper association. Those associations have expertise in the legislative process, and it is their job to advocate before the legislature on behalf of their media members; your phone call may be what alerts them to a raid on the public’s right to know.