Va. committee to study public records exemption for university presidents

VIRGINIA — Lawmakers in Virginia mothballed a bill Wednesday aimed at closing a public records law exemption that allows university presidents to withhold their work emails and notes.

The bill, which Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, introduced on Jan. 14, would remove from the commonwealth’s public records law an exemption for university presidents’ “correspondence” and “working papers.”

“I think public records ought to be available to the public, and we have too many exemptions in Virginia,” Petersen said. “It’s premised on open government.”

Petersen presented the bill to the Senate General Laws and Technology subcommittee on Wednesday. He said lawmakers passed over the bill because of an ongoing Freedom of Information Advisory Council study to examine all of the law’s exemptions.

Petersen said subcommittee members thought it would be premature to act on the bill until they see the results from the study, which he expects will be released at the end of the year.

Virginia is the only state that has carved out an exemption for university presidents’ correspondence.

Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said lawmakers need to reform the law because universities in Virginia have applied a broad interpretation of the exemption.

“The notion is that because all public records are presumed to be open to the public, they can only be withheld when an exemption is narrowly tailored so that it doesn’t cover any more than necessary,” she said.

Petersen said he proposes legislation each year to narrow exemptions in Virginia’s public records law. He introduced similar legislation last year to narrow a similar exemption for General Assembly members.

“The more information that the taxpayer gets, the better,” he said. “There are some valid exceptions, but 90 percent of what goes on in discussions either by email or by regular mail should be open to the public.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.