University presidents in New Mexico push for new exemptions in state public records law

A group of college presidents in New Mexico are pushing lawmakers to amend the state’s public records law to exempt from public disclosure documents that identify the applicants for public-sector jobs.

The proposal has already met backlash from journalists and free speech advocates in New Mexico.

According to the document, the changes would exempt documents that identity the applicants for any public-sector job in the state, documents regarding alleged civil rights violations and proprietary university research. The amendment would give law enforcement agencies broader discretion to withhold from the public records that could “interfere with law enforcement proceedings” or constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

A sponsor has not yet introduced the proposal, which the New Mexico Council of University Presidents prepared and New Mexico State University President Garrey Carruthers oversaw. Justin Bannister, a New Mexico State University spokesman said the recommendations may not be submitted as a bill this legislative session.

Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said she met with Carruthers last week to view and discuss the proposal.

Boe said she would fight the legislation “aggressively” because it denies citizens their right to access public documents and the language of the bill resembles the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In a conversation with Carruthers, Boe said she was told the proposal stems from NMSU’s experiences while hiring a new athletics director. Boe said she was told several candidates pulled out when they found their names could be publicized.

Bannister declined to comment on the proposal.

Boe said she doesn’t agree with Carruthers’ logic, citing City of Farmington v. The Daily Times, a 2009 New Mexico court of appeals case in which the Farmington newspaper sued the city for records showing all applicants for city manager. The court ruled the documents were public record.

Research compiled for the case showed no proof that publicizing names of job applicants would prevent qualified candidates from applying, she said.

“They found that there is no hard evidence showing that making applicants’ names public deters good applicants,” she said. “Most of the evidence seems to be anecdotal.”

The Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists posted an open letter to Carruthers on its website Monday expressing concern the proposal “would leave New Mexicans less informed about their government and remove vital safeguards against abuses of power.”

The SPJ released its statement in hopes of rallying citizens against the proposal, said Andy Lyman, the Rio Grande Chapter’s board president.

“Our decision to write an open letter to the president of the college, was not that we thought of this is going to be a bill or that we need to stop it,” Lyman said. “It was more of, let’s let it be known how we feel about it and encourage people to not support it before it gets to the Capitol.”

According to Carruthers’ response, which accompanies the letter on SPJ’s website, he acknowledges SPJ’s concerns and believes the organization “would support legislative changes that would allow us full cost recovery to provide all of these documents.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.