The Student Press Law Center is proud to honor The Citizen at Laney College with the organization’s inaugural Student Freedom of Information Award for the staff’s extraordinary persistence in using public records to investigate their community college district’s campus safety program, among other issues. Three other college reporting teams also earned recognition as finalists.
SPLC and the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida presented the honors Oct. 30 at the Fall National College Media Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. The award comes with a $2,000 prize, sponsored by the Brechner FOI Project.
“The Citizen exemplifies the watchdog role of the press through their tenacious pursuit of public records to uncover questionable contracts, conflicts of interest and lack of transparency for the Peralta Community College District community,” SPLC Executive Director Gary Green said. “Often, there is no one other than student media to hold college administrators to account. Citizen adviser Eleni Economides Gastis and her student journalists have shown the local community, and those in power, they are watching.”
The Citizen staff earned the award for their dogged use of public records to investigate a variety of issues within the Peralta Community College District, particularly the management of campus safety as the four-college district transitioned away from on-campus police services to private, unarmed security.
“As a news publication, we understand that transparency is paramount for a functioning society, and for keeping those in power accountable to the people they represent,” former Citizen editor-in-chief Shiloh Johnston said. “Receiving this award for the work that we have done using public records requests to uphold our institutions to that standard of transparency is truly gratifying, and I could not be more proud to have been a part of such a great team.”
Starting in 2020, The Citizen dove deep into the security vendors selected by the district for taxpayer-funded contracts and discovered, among other things, that two of the companies were not licensed to employ security guards in California. Because of the questions raised in the reporting, the district eventually backed away from awarding those two contracts, which were worth up to $4.7 million, and the companies were later cited by the state regulatory agency.
This year, as the district’s public safety director — who oversees the private security — faces criminal charges related to an altercation near campus, The Citizen learned through records requests that he resigned while under investigation for misconduct at his last school district.
“This outstanding records-based investigative reporting demonstrates just how important college journalists are in covering their communities,” said David Cuillier, director of the Brechner FOI Project. “We need to do everything we can to support these students and their work — through funding and national recognition.”
The staff was able to report these stories despite the district’s frequently delayed or incomplete responses to its records requests, and while facing efforts to intimidate them into backing down.
“Throughout our reporting, we have encountered an interesting stigma on student journalists,” Johnston said. “It’s as if the fact that we are students somehow makes us incapable of conducting rigorous investigations or having any ethical integrity in our reporting. This could not be further from the truth. The other students I have worked and learned with over the last two years have been competent, careful and considerate — dedicated to reporting the facts.”
Instead of backing down, The Citizen sued the district in January for failing to adequately respond to their many requests for information under the California Public Records Act, including requests related to the vendor contracts and the public safety director’s emails. The lawsuit recently concluded, and The Citizen promises more reporting soon on records it obtained.
“It is a tremendous honor to receive this award from SPLC, an organization that our publication has often relied upon for guidance on our most important stories,” Johnston said.
Three other reporting teams are also recognized as finalists for the 2023 Student Freedom of Information Award for their outstanding public records reporting.
Southwestern College Sun and Alicia Rivero, Camila Gonzalez, Liliana Anguiano (Southwestern College)
This intrepid team uncovered that Southwestern College let an administrator quietly retire with benefits after he and two accomplices drove a forklift into a campus building undergoing demolition, pried loose an ATM bolted to the floor and looted it of nearly $10,000.
Following a tip, reporters Alicia Rivero and Camila Gonzales, supported by editor-in-chief Liliana Anguiano, spent months steadfastly digging through hardcopy and electronic public records, including campus police records, Chula Vista Police Department records, court documents and California’s public employee retirement records and governing board audio recordings and records after administrators repeatedly tried to deny them access.
The student journalists received backlash from some administrators following the story, but The Sun continues reporting on tips from community members about other potential crimes by university employees. This school year, administrators cut The Sun’s budget, but they deny it was in retaliation against the courageous coverage.
The Lantern and Jessica Langer (The Ohio State University)
When Ohio State President Kristina Johnson left office in June, the university refused to reveal any information about her departure, citing attorney-client privilege. The Lantern — and other local and national journalists — filed multiple public records requests to better understand the circumstances, but the university denied those requests.
Former Lantern editor-in-chief Jessica Langer then filed a lawsuit against Ohio State for violating the state’s Sunshine Laws. In June, the court decided in The Lantern’s favor, requiring the university to release its severance agreement with the former president, which revealed that she could not speak negatively about the university nor can the Board of Trustees speak negatively about her. Without The Lantern’s lawsuit, no one would have known the details of Langer’s agreement with the university.
The Lantern and Langer’s public records lawsuit demonstrates to Ohio State and similar universities that student journalists will persist in the face of administrative roadblocks put up to deny access to important public records.
Ball State Daily News and Elissa Maudlin (Ball State University)
Former Daily News editor-in-chief Elissa Maudlin spent eight months investigating a leasing company that managed rental units in which many students lived, leading to changes at Ball State and a settlement against the company. Complaints ranged from invasions of privacy, use of deceptive redecoration fees in place of a security deposit and a repeated failure to deliver safe, clean rental units.
Maudlin reviewed dozens of complaints from residents, seeking information about what support, if any, existed for renters at the university, local or state level, along with dozens of Indiana tenant law and business records. While reporting, she also faced sourcing roadblocks with current and former employees of the management company, current and former renters and state and local officials.
Following the story, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita investigated and the management company agreed to a $35,000 settlement. Ball State also implemented a “Quality Housing Initiative” to help students find safe, off-campus housing options. Ultimately, Maudlin’s reporting and use of public records provided a platform for students who were living in less-than-unfavorable housing conditions to speak out.
About the Award
The Student Freedom of Information Award recognizes a student journalist or team of journalists for outstanding and tenacious use of public records in reporting that promotes transparency and brings important issues to light in their school or community. SPLC presents the honor in partnership with the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida, which provides a $2,000 prize to the winner.
This year’s winner and finalists were selected from a competitive group of nominations by an advisory committee of experts on public records, including Barbara A. Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability; Albert Serna Jr., Whitmore FOIA Fellow at MuckRock; and Gunita Singh, staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of education, journalism and the law to promote, support and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.