This article looks at the frustrating obstacles journalists often face in trying to obtain access to personnel-related records from college and schools. While the law sometimes entitles these agencies to withhold highly embarrassing or confidential documents, it’s an oversimplification to say – as many agencies do – that “personnel” is a blanket excuse for denying a public-records request.
At the University of Oregon, Vanderbilt University and the University of Montana, FERPA was cited to withhold records and information related to sexual assault allegations. FERPA was even cited at Florida State University to withhold records about Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, who has been accused of sexual assault in December 2012.
In four states, student journalists outnumber journalists from professional outlets assigned to the statehouse full-time, where they ensure citizens have access to information about how the state spends their tax dollars and decisions on education, criminal justice and safety regulations.
Each school year, student newspaper staffs publish nude images. While some argue the images accurately convey a newsworthy event, others are published to be edgy, like at the University of Buffalo, where the student newspaper’s annual sex issue features articles about sexual health and related topics. Often accompanying the articles are sexually explicit images some people argue are unsettling to see in a newspaper.
Despite a promise of increased transparency in police activities, state public records laws may shield the footage from the public. Footage likely won’t be released if it is part of an ongoing investigation or if certain details, such as the identities of victims in sensitive situations, cannot be redacted.
With added responsibilities and differing life experiences, nontraditional students — a growing population — often feel they are not well represented in their student newspaper. When nontraditional students join the newspaper staff, however, they are often able to broaden the organization’s news coverage.
Texas law starts with the assumption that a requestor is owed records within 10 days. But asking the attorney general for an opinion stops the clock and can push the agency’s response time back by a month-and-a-half — which makes the process vulnerable to manipulation by an agency seeking to run out the clock on a deadline-sensitive request.
Nabiha Syed, a media attorney for Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, and a member of SPLC’s Board of Directors, introduced Active Voice, an SPLC project that aims to help young women who face challenges in speaking out.