Access to public information restricted as schools move online

Many schools across the country are failing to comply with Sunshine Laws during the coronavirus pandemic, which is making it even more difficult for student journalists to cover the news.

Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said the coronavirus isn’t a legally acceptable reason for universities to withhold public information from student journalists. He pointed out that, although record holders face real challenges from trying to social distance, FOI and open meeting laws do not make exemptions for times of crisis. NFOIC and 131 other First Amendment groups including the Student Press Law Center, signed a statement addressing the importance of government transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think any action right now restricting access to public information is a way to streamline their decision making, but [government bodies] are representing us,” Bevarly said. “They have state requirements and procedures. Even in a crisis situation, you have to find a way to continue doing what you have to do.”

The Washington Association of Public Records Officers, a non-profit that educates people who distribute public records, said they haven’t released any guidance specifically for remote work during the coronavirus, but did say that even during a pandemic, “agencies’ obligations currently remain the same.”

Even in a crisis situation, you have to find a way to continue doing what you have to do

More than 51,000 cases of the coronavirus have been detected in the U.S. as of March 24, 2020, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. As of March 23, only four states haven’t closed all schools, according to Education Week. Most schools are switching to online courses for the remainder of the semester, requiring faculty and staff to work remotely.

Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney at the Student Press Law Center, said that while this is a tough situation for everyone involved, schools must adhere to transparency laws.

“This is something that is totally unprecedented and something that might not have been contemplated, but schools definitely shouldn’t use this to not give student journalists information,” Dean said.

Public records withheld

Having no one on campus makes releasing records more difficult, but not impossible. If a public records office stops releasing records because of the coronavirus, they’re likely in violation of their state’s public records law. 

Bevarly recognizes that being a public records officer isn’t an easy job. Even under normal circumstances public records offices are often understaffed and overworked, and campus closures have made the situation much more complicated.

“I’m not saying this is easy by any means, and we commend those who are doing it already,” Bevarly said.

Bevarly gave a few suggestions for struggling public records officers:

  • Create an email service to release any important information ahead of time
  • Make sure to always use public email addresses and company phones for public information-related matters
  • Designate a public records custodian in each department to expedite the release of records

Bevarly also said that the current challenges records officers are experiencing highlight the importance of having records easily accessible by digitizing them and using an online records request portal.

Dean suggested student journalists prioritize their requests in order of importance. She said it might take longer for someone to fill requests, and adding more to the queue could hurt your chances of getting what you need in a reasonable time frame. She said coronavirus-related records should be requested first, because they’re arguably the most urgent to the community. SPLC has a public records letter generator to help student journalists file requests.

If a record holder says they don’t have access to the records because they’re working remotely, Dean said student journalists should ask whether they have access to a remote server with related documents. If you have other questions about obtaining records remotely, call SPLC’s legal hotline.

Open meetings closed

Kourtney Husnick, editor-in-chief at Cleveland State University’s student paper, The Cauldron, said the student government, board of trustees and faculty senate are supposed to update the media when there are any changes to their meetings.

But aside from confirmation from public relations that the meetings would be moving online and probably held less frequently, Husnick is still in the dark. She hasn’t been able to confirm when the meetings will be or how the public will be able to access them.

Bevarly said schools are legally obligated to keep open meetings open to the public. The best way to do that, he said, is through a livestream. He said these bodies should use the livestream even after coming back to campus because it keeps them even more transparent. He suggested:

  • Using a live streaming service with a chat bar for public comment
  • Creating an email service to notify people of an upcoming meeting or any changes to the meeting schedule
  • Recording the meeting and posting it online

Dean said under the current circumstances, open meetings are an easier problem for administrators to solve than public records. 

“Any public body that’s meeting should take advantage of the technological advances that allow us to livestream the meetings and student journalists should always ask for those links,” Dean said.

Complaints process interrupted

Husnick filed a public records complaint in March 2019 with the Ohio Court of Claims against her university for redacting a suspect’s name on a police document. She was supposed to have a mediation meeting over the phone with the school and the court of claims on Friday, March 20, but the meeting never happened, and she wasn’t informed that it was canceled.

“Courts are suspending some proceedings on what they deem not critical or urgent but the courts and other bodies should still be transparent about what’s going on,” Dean said. “This shouldn’t make access to the courts system any more complicated or confusing than it already is.”

Husnick expected the meeting to resolve future records issues with the university. She suspects it was canceled because of the coronavirus.

“I think this has a lot to do with the coronavirus, but this was supposed to be remote anyway so to not even tell me it was canceled was really strange,” Husnick said.

Public officials, school districts, administrations should work really hard to find ways to get information out to the public, especially in times of uncertainty and crisis and confusion

Despite the hiccup with the complaint, Husnick said Cleveland State has been more transparent than usual during the coronavirus through daily email updates to students, and a more responsive public relations department. That’s something Dean says all schools should strive for.

“Public officials, school districts, administrations should work really hard to find ways to get information out to the public especially in times of uncertainty and crisis and confusion,” Dean said.

SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner.

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