When colleges conceal records they know are rightfully public, it’s usually an exercise in public-relations image control. So it’s only appropriate to hit habitually obstructionist colleges where it hurts: Right in the reputation.
If Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne can be forced to carry the scarlet “A” as punishment for marital infidelity, then perhaps a comparable penalty is in order for colleges that are unfaithful to their duties under open-records law.
Student news organizations are making a start.
At the University of Oklahoma, The OU Daily features on its home page a link to a spreadsheet of all of the student journalists’ requests for public records and their status. According to the tally, some requests from as far back as January remain unfulfilled. (Among its many inadequacies, the Oklahoma Public Records Act provides no deadline within which an agency must respond, not even the “reasonable time” that is the default under most state disclosure laws.)
Helpfully, the Daily provides not only the outcome of each request, but also the basis on which requests were denied — so the public can appreciate just how often schools throw up smokescreens like “student privacy” to withhold information the public has a right to know.
Inspired by Oklahoma, the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel has taken its scofflaw administration to the public square (as well as, occasionally, to court). The DTH‘s scorecard shows at least one records request that’s been sitting for 300 days-plus and counting — meaning it’s time to start lighting the birthday candles.
Every student media organization that makes avid use of open-records laws should consider putting its college on a public time-clock. Colleges on the whole are far too secretive with the public’s business, and the threat of a lawsuit plainly is insufficiently motivational. (Under most state laws, the not-very-scary penalty for failing to hand over a public record is … an order to hand over the record.)
If litigation is no deterrent, then it’s appropriate to resort to humiliation — assuming, and this is no small assumption, that college administrators have the capacity for shame.