Conservative Oregon student journal told it cannot use student fee-funded budget to pay for public records

OREGON — A former student journalist at the University of Oregon said he was told his conservative publication could not use its student fee-funded budget to pay for public records.

Nicholas Ekblad, who was editor-in-chief of The Oregon Commentator last year before graduating in June, said he requested Oregon President Michael Gottfredson’s calendar from January to May and was quoted a cost of $240.

The charge was based on the university’s estimate of time needed to redact the calendar. Following a similar request for Gottfredson’s calendar in January, the university redacted much of the calendar, citing student and employee privacy laws as well as state laws allowing information about university donors to be withheld. Ekblad was not charged for the first request because it mirrored a set of records that had already been provided to someone else.

The Commentator was prepared to pay for the records, but on June 12, the school’s Associated Students leadership adviser told him in an email that the publication could not use its own money to pay for the records. The Commentator is funded through student fees, advertising revenue and private donations, according to its website.

“We officially heard back from General Counsel,” Consuela Perez-Jefferis wrote to Ekblad. “They confirmed that the incidental fee money can’t be used for an outside party’s public records requests because incidental fee money is state money.”

Perez-Jefferis could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. David Hubin, Gottfredson’s senior assistant, said that despite the email sent to Ekblad, the university’s attorneys haven’t made a decision yet as to whether the Commentator can pay for public records out of its budget. Hubin said that issue “is in front of our lawyers and each of the Oregon University system lawyers.”

“The Commentator is one of the smaller student publications that is funded directly from incidental fees which within our state are classified as ‘state’ funds once they are collected,” Hubin said.

He said that Ekblad’s request brought the question of whether student groups can use student fee money for records requests into focus.

“This is going to be a topic that is discussed certainly within the next weeks and months,” Hubin said.

The debate over the payment is just the latest in a series of frustrations expressed over the past few months by Ekblad and other journalists at the school concerning the difficulty of accessing public records.

Last month, the Daily Emerald, the school’s independent student-run newspaper, announced it had started a fundraising campaign to support public records reporting because of high charges they had encountered. (As a nonprofit corporation, the Emerald doesn’t fall under the same funding restrictions as the Commentator, Hubin said.)

Ryan Frank, the paper’s publisher, said the students needed a way to pay for public records and that is how SunshineCampus was born. The site lets readers donate specifically to fund public records-based reporting.

“We kept getting these ridiculous responses,” said Sam Stites, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “Either they would get back to us and have us rewrite our requests five times before they would look at it or they would come back and charge us $120 for one page.”

Stites said that he encountered resistance in January to a request for basketball ticket sales data for the 2012-13 school year for Matthew Knight Arena. He said this was just one example of a request that really bothered him and helped lead to SunshineCampus.

“It was literally a half page of information,” Stites said, adding that the school took three weeks to get back to him and charged him $110 for it.

“It was about 15 lines of information that probably gets emailed back and forth between people on a daily basis,” he said.

Stites said that it’s very difficult to get information from sources at the university, who often respond to questions by directing reporters to make a records request for the information.

“It feels like the administration doesn’t want to be that transparent, which results in us having to make public records requests and results in us having to pay for requests,” Stites said.

Others have also encountered high fees due to redactions. Bill Harbaugh, an economics professor at the university who runs UO Matters, a watchdog blog that covers the school, was charged heavily for redactions following his request seeking Gottfredson’s calendar from last August to January.

Harbaugh said the university told him they have to charge so much for the records because they must redact student names under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Under FERPA, student educational records are confidential.

“My guess is that this is really just a tactic to justify fees that will discourage student journalists from getting the calendar at all,” Harbaugh said.

Hubin said the University wants to be absolutely forthcoming with records, adding that Harbaugh and Ekblad’s calendar requests sounded simple at first but it didn’t turn out that way.

“We didn’t at that point maintain a clean calendar that just said ‘meeting with student or meeting with student group,’” Hubin said. “It had individual names that would have been a FERPA violation. It became a complicated process.”

Ekblad disagreed, saying that the records should be public.

“We are just trying to find out what the president is doing and who he is meeting with,” he said. “As we understand it, that should be public knowledge.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said It seems unlikely that most of what was redacted fits into the exemptions cited by the school. He also said that none of this information would be protected under FERPA.

“Redacting the names of airports and hotels looks like an attempt to cover up the type of lifestyle the president has,” he said.

Goldstein said there is no reason to redact student names because a president’s calendar isn’t a student education record under FERPA.

“A president’s calendar is not part of a student’s educational file,” he said. “The subject matter of the meeting might be protected by FERPA, but the fact that the meeting happened isn’t.”

The university has already made steps to make Gottfredson’s calendar more accessible, Hubin said. Starting in the fall, the university plans to post a “public version” of the calendar online.

In addition, Hubin said the university has plans to create a task force that will look at how the university handles public records requests. The group will also look at whether to offer fee waivers to student journalists.

By Margaret Baum, SPLC staff writer. Contact Baum by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.