Georgia student journalist sues for access to records about budget cuts

GEORGIA — David Schick, a student at Georgia State University, filed a lawsuit against the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia today in an attempt to receive the outstanding records from a request he filed nearly a year ago.

Schick was a student at Georgia Perimeter College, a two-year institution, in May 2012, when the college experienced significant financial and management problems and faced a $25 million budget shortfall. He was serving as editor-in-chief of The Collegian, GPC’s student newspaper, when he requested documents related to the budget in two separate written requests: one to the college itself and one to the University System of Georgia.

“I want to know how [Georgia Perimeter College] made the decision to terminate faculty members, and I want to know what [the school system] knew and when they knew it,” Schick said.

In the complaint, Schick seeks a judgment to enforce his right to inspect public records under the Georgia Open Records Act and a waiver of processing fees. He is also asking for attorney fees. Daniel Levitas, of Burdine and Brown in Suwanee, Ga., has taken on the case pro bono as part of the Student Press Law Center’s Attorney Referral Network.

“Unfortunately, officials at both the Board of Regents and Georgia Perimeter College have used all manner of tactics to discourage my client and delay his receipt of these requested records,” Levitas said in a press release.

After filing the requests last July, the USG said in August that it would cost $2,963.39 to produce the records associated with that request. The high cost was attributed to estimated employee retrieval and review time, and Schick was told that some of the materials he requested couldn’t be produced because they were in use for an open investigation.

Schick said he heard from GPC two days after making his request, and he was quoted a $927.99 processing fee. He said he has not heard from GPC since last July, despite his attempts at calling and emailing to negotiate the cost.

According to the complaint, in November 2012, Burns Newsome, the University System’s vice chancellor, agreed to a “rolling production” of the requested documents, which would allow Schick to collect them as they became available. He was able to access the first installment of documents on Dec. 6, 2012 — nearly half a year after the request — and the second installment on Jan. 29, 2013. Schick said he’s still waiting for some of the records.

“What was interesting was the way they gave me the emails,” Schick said. “They printed out every single email — nearly 6,000 — and scanned them back in as JPEGs, so you couldn’t do a word search. In addition to delaying the documents, that made it more difficult to search through them.”

John Millsaps, associate vice chancellor for media and publications of the USG, could not be reached for comment. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the system does not comment on pending litigation.

Prior to July, Schick had made several records requests to the Georgia system and been provided records without being charged. Additionally, the Georgia Open Records Act requires that documents be produced within three business days of the request, and if that is not possible, the government institution must provide a timeline of when the requestor can expect the documents.

Georgia’s public records act also states that a requestor does not have to pay the fee before receiving the documents if it is less than $500. However, The Collegian paid the USG fee — which was negotiated down to $291 — before Schick received any documents.

Schick says he has been “crowd-sourcing” the investigation by posting the documents he receives on his blog.

“People will be able to connect the dots better than I could on my own,” he said.

Schick says it is the “foot-dragging of university officials” and “administrators just flat-out defying open records laws” that compelled him to file his lawsuit.

“I’m not just another student journalist pushover,” he said. “I’m here, and I’m going to fight for what’s right.”

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