Former student journalist scores major victory in public records lawsuit

GEORGIA — In a public records victory, the former editor-in-chief of The Collegian at Georgia Perimeter College won his appeal Thursday after a two-year suit against the University System of Georgia Board of Regents for mishandling his records requests.

David Schick filed a lawsuit against university system leaders in 2013 after they delayed and withheld records he had requested in July 2012 related to the university’s $25 million budget shortfall and subsequent staff layoffs, the result of a raft of financial mismanagement. He sent one record request to the university system and one to Georgia Perimeter College, each of which quoted high costs to fulfill them — GPC estimated the cost at $927.99 and the USG at $2,963.39. Schick’s attorney negotiated the USG fee down to $291.

Officials also denied Schick some materials outright, claiming they were part of an ongoing investigation — a broad and inappropriate use of the “law enforcement exemption,” which shields records of ongoing law enforcement investigations from public access, said Schick’s attorney, Daniel Levitas, who represented him pro bono through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

University System of Georgia representatives did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment. Schick was unavailable for comment on Thursday afternoon. Schick has since graduated and is now a middle school teacher, after previously working as an education reporter.

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian, in an 18-page ruling, reversed the trial court’s order in part. The two other judges, Anne Elizabeth Barnes and William M. Ray II, concurred.

“This is a very encouraging ruling primarily because it clarifies a critical issue of public policy by clearly announcing that the University System of Georgia cannot hide behind the fig leaf of the so-called ‘law enforcement exemption’ to deny what are certainly public records,” Levitas said. “The university system was saying it works with law enforcement, so it should be entitled to the same protection as law enforcement agencies. The decision renounces that and states clearly that the trial court committed error by allowing it to take advantage of the exemption.”

Schick sued for access to the records, as well as seeking his attorney fees. He had also requested a timeline for when the records would be given to him, which is required under Georgia law if the records cannot be produced within three business days of the request.

The lower court deemed the university system’s actions “substantially justified,” though it did fine the university system $1,000 for failing to cite specific public records exemptions when withholding certain documents.

The appeals court reversed the trial court’s ruling that the university system could withhold records under the exemption for law enforcement agencies, which university lawyers argued could apply even to non-police agencies that sometimes work in cooperation with law enforcement. But the appeals court said the plain wording of the Georgia open records act does not entitle a non-law-enforcement agency to invoke that exemption.

The university system could seek leave to take the case to the state Supreme Court, file a motion for reconsideration or take the case back to the trial court to settle on attorney fees. Regardless, the case is a victory for public records advocates, Levitas said.

“One thing that’s important about the decision is that it reiterates, as previous decisions in Open Records Act cases have, the high regard for public access to public records that the court holds here in Georgia,” he said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at (202) 974-6317 or by email.

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