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SPJ donates $1,000 toward student’s fight
CONTACT:Oklahoma State University student Sean Hill, 405/269-1037
SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chair Charles N. Davis, 573/882-5736
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists has donated $1,000 from its Legal Defense Fund to help a journalism student challenge Oklahoma State University’s policy of not releasing public records in a computer format.
The OSU Student Chapter of SPJ is donating an additional $2,000 to Sean Hill for what may become a lawsuit over the university’s public records policy.
Hill, an officer in the OSU Student Chapter and senior editor of the student newspaper, The Daily O’Collegian, requested an electronic copy of the university’s grade distribution database on Nov. 2.
Two weeks later, OSU officials printed some 400 pages from the “Student Information System Database” for Hill rather than provide him with an electronic copy of the database for two recent semesters.
Limiting the access to paper records has made meaningful analysis of the data unmanageable, Hill said.
Since November, Hill and other O’Collegian editors have twice discussed with OSU President David Schmidly their concerns about the university’s open records policies and practices. Hill also has spoken several times with OSU’s attorney regarding his request for the database. The vice president whose office oversees pubic records requests last week canceled a meeting requested by Hill.
The students have been unable to persuade OSU officials to change the policy. In a recent e-mail to the state’s largest newspaper, OSU spokesman Nestor Gonzales confirmed the university’s “policy of not providing open records in electronic format.”
The form that records requesters are required by the university to fill out also states that documents are available in “paper only.”
“It’s disheartening to see University officials defying both state law and Oklahoma’s Attorney General by persisting in a policy that they won’t disclose records in computer form,” said Irwin Gratz, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Their rationale to protect ‘the integrity of personally identifiable information’ seems disingenuous since the data sought consists only of grades broken down by courses. I presume the school’s true purpose is to discourage analysis of the data and the discovery of some pattern that might prove embarrassing to the University.”
However, computer records are explicitly included in the state Open Records Act’s definition of public record. A 1999 Oklahoma attorney general opinion also says “public bodies must provide records in whatever form they exist.”
“The Open Records Act does not distinguish between the form of public records,” Attorney General Drew Edmondson wrote.
Reporters for the state’s two largest newspapers, The Oklahoman and Tulsa World, also have been refused electronic copies of the database. In an e-mail to The Oklahoman on Jan. 7, Gonzales said: “In accordance with university policy, we do not provide these records electronically due to the possible abuse of the information by third parties. Student records are protected by federal law, and we complied in paper format to preserve the integrity of personally identifiable information.”
However, Hill notes that the database contains no personally identifiable information regarding students. It reveals only the aggregate distribution of grades, e.g. the number of A’s, for each course taught at the university, not the individual grade of each student.
“The administrators at this fine institution of higher learning are blocking out the sunshine like a surrey with the fringe on top. They should be forced to follow the law like any other tax-supported record-keeper,” said Bruce Cadwallader, the Ohio-based chairman of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund.
Funded by private donations and auctions, SPJ’s LDF funds are used primarily by journalists to fund legal battles for Freedom of Information. Applications for funding may be sent to SPJ’s national office in Indianapolis, Ind., or contact the Society’s LDF chairman. Information about the fund is available HERE