FOIA Shaming: Latest Strategy for Getting Recalcitrant Public Officials to Stop Breaking the Law

by Categorized: Education, First Amendment, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

No court or federal agency has ever deemed parking tickets racked up by college students to be “educational records” protected by privacy laws.

But when student journalists at the University of Oklahoma sought parking-ticket data from their school – to determine whether student-athletes or other VIPs were getting their tickets fixed – the university refused their request, insisting the records were covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That stance is at odds with rulings issued by courts in two other states, as well as the practice at at least one other public university: UConn, which provided that very data to the Courant several years ago without a fight.

Open-records UniversityofMarylandexperts say the reporters at the Oklahoma Daily would likely win if they took their school to court. But that could cost tens of thousands of dollars. So what are student journalists to do? Enter FOIA Shaming, a new project from the Student Press Law Center designed to needle public officials who withhold public records on flimsy grounds.

There’s the University of Maryland, which refused for more than a year to produce records showing disciplinary actions taken against students found to have committed sexual assaults on campus.

And the University System of Georgia, which tried charging a student paper nearly $3,000 to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request. After 140 days – and the intervention of a private lawyer – the school system cut the bill by 90 percent.

The launch of the blog site corresponds with Sunshine Week, held annually around the birth date of James Madison, an early champion of open government, who semi-famously declared: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Know some shame-worthy public-records behavior at your school? The Student Press Law Center is inviting submissions for the blog here.

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