Online student news site sues University of Central Florida for access to records, meetings

FLORIDA — A student-run online news organization at the University of Central Florida has filed a lawsuit against the school alleging violations of Florida’s public records and open meetings laws.

Last week, Knight News filed a lawsuit against the University of Central Florida Board of Trustees and University President John C. Hitt. The online news site says the school has overly redacted public records and shut reporters and the public out of student disciplinary hearings they feel should be public.

“UCF has committed a variety of violations of Florida’s open-government law in the past year, including refusing to produce public records, failing to explain the legal basis for redacting from records that were produced and prohibiting public access to board meetings where decisions concerning discipline of student organizations are made,” said Justin Hemlepp, an attorney representing Knight News, in an email.

Since February 2012, reporters at Knight News have faced “a pattern of noncompliance with the Public Records Act,” according to the lawsuit. The online news site was founded in 2009, according to its website.

The news organization requested impeachment affidavits filed against student government members along with budget records and expense reports. In response to each of these requests, UCF redacted the records but failed to note the Florida statute that allows the redaction, the complaint alleges.

When Knight News requested records relating to contracts with performers for Homecoming events, UCF denied the request, asking the news organization “What is it that you would need this information for?” according to the complaint. Florida state law does not require individuals to state why they seek certain records. The school provided records to a competing student news organization, the Central Florida Future, according to the complaint.

This lawsuit also alleges the university denied reporters access to “student conduct panels” held after hazing allegations involving the university’s Alpha Tau Omega chapter. Knight News is arguing that because the school’s student conduct board is subject to the state’s open meetings law as a “state agency or authority” because it makes official rulings on disciplinary issues.

Grant Heston, the university’s vice president for communications and public affairs, said the university has an interest to “protect student information” as well as comply with the state’s public records law.

“We take our duties under Florida public records laws very seriously, the same we do under federal law regarding student privacy,” Heston said. “Federal law,” Heston said, meant FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which he described as “broad reaching and deep in scope.”

Heston said the university plans to “contest this lawsuit very vigorously.” UCF hired attorney Richard Mitchell from the firm GrayRobinson, P.A. UCF has not formally answered the complaint.

Knight News hopes to make public records and open meetings more accessible to others, Hemlepp said.

“Everyone in Florida, including the student journalists at Knight News, has a clear right under those laws and the state’s constitution to inspect UCF’s records and attend university board meetings where decisions are made,” he said..

By Kaitlin Tipsword, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tipsword by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.