Campus FOI Resources
Its not easy getting access to public records and meetings when youre a journalist. It can be even worse when you are a student journalist. But help awaits! Below are some resources to help student journalists access government information and make campuses more transparent.
SPJ's Black Hole Award: The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award this year to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. The Freedom of Information Committee accepted nominations for 2010 violations, coordinated by committee member Mike Farrell of the University of Kentucky, and selected the winner along with five runners-up. This award will be handed out annually during national Sunshine Week. Click here to read about this year's winner and the five runners-up.
Reporters Guide to FERPA: Navigating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act: Ever have a tough time getting public records from schools or universities? We feel your pain and are here to help you. The federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act has been twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret. Take back your right to information with this guide, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Student Press Law Center
Every college student should be familiar with this organization, which is dedicated to press freedom at universities and high schools. The Web site is loaded with practical guides to accessing public records and meetings, including rights for students at private universities. The Web site also has a handy online automated letter generator, tailored to your own state (caution: use the threatening language in the last paragraph carefully. A more neutral letter is available here. This organization will also provide you legal advice if you are having troubles getting your school to help you out.
This organization is dedicated to making sure college students are aware of dangers on their campuses. Daniel Carter is an expert on the Clery Act, which requires universities to make campus crime information public, including crime logs and annual statistics. The Web site also provides Department of Education crime data for campuses nationwide.
Covering campus crime
This is such a good publication by the Student Press Law Center that it deserves its own entry. Its available here and theres talk of coming out with a fourth edition in fall 2008.
Department of Education FERPA site
Often school officials will say everything is secret, even the basic fact that a student attends the school, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Refer those officials to this official Web site for the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces FERPA. Youll find, for example, this statement: Schools may disclose, without consent, directory information such as a students name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. Also refer them to Clery Act information if they hide serious crime information on campus under the guise of FERPA.
Know your state law
Its essential that you know the basics of your state open records and meeting laws. Fortunately, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has provided online summaries that make it easy (or easier) to understand the law. Find your states laws in the Open Government Guide.
Find FOI experts in your state
You dont have to fight for access alone. Experts in your state will be happy to help you. Check out the experts lists provided on this Web site, such as a coalition for open government, your press association, or SPJ sunshine chair, to find someone who can answer FOI questions and even go to bat for you. Also contact SPJ if you are running into problems. Sometimes large media organizations will provide legal assistance for students fighting secrecy. Also, SPJ FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson is an expert on access to campus crime records. See if your state has a records ombudsman or person within the attorney generals office to mediate disputes. When you are denied information, contact experts to see if your school is correct. Quote them in stories exposing the secrecy.
Get to know your campus public records officer
Most campuses designate a person to handle public records requests. Its a thankless job, caught between pushy requesters and secretive bureaucrats. Get to know this person. Express an interest in what they do, because it will help you be a better journalist. Find out what records they often hand out, looking at their FOI log they use to track requests. Find out what records arent requested but should be.
Conduct a campus access audit
Illustrate secrecy on campus by requesting documents that should be public and then writing about how the university responds. That can educate officials and prod them to change their dark ways. Team up with journalism students at other universities and do a statewide university access audit. For example, a 2004 FOI class co-taught by Susan Ross and David Cuillier at Washington State University requested dozens of records from 20 universities in five Northwest states to find widespread noncompliance of the Clery Act. Charles Davis, an access guru from the University of Missouri-Columbia and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, developed an audit toolkit that can be applied by professionals and classes. Also, see a good description of implementing an audit in the classroom by Terry Wimmer, now of the University of Arizona, who presented a FOI audit as an AEJMC Great Idea for Teaching in 2002 (see pp. 86-88).
Write about secrecy
If university officials illegally deny you public records, write about it. E-mail your stories to the local media. If it gets widespread coverage then school officials might get in line. Remember, they arent saying no to you. They are saying no to you and thousands of your fellow classmates. Hold those officials accountable to students. After all, you pay their salaries. Refer to the Web page on how to write about FOI.