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Your right to know  •  March 10-16, 2024

Campus FOI Resources

It’s not easy getting access to public records and meetings when you’re 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.

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 website is loaded with practical guides to accessing public records and meetings, including rights for students at private universities. The website also has a handy online automated letter generator, tailored to your own state. This organization will also provide you legal advice if you are having troubles getting your school to help you out.

Clery Center

This organization is dedicated to making sure college students are aware of dangers on their campuses. You'll find expert knowledge on the Clery Act, which requires universities to make campus crime information public, including crime logs and annual statistics. The website 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. It’s available here.

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 website for the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces FERPA. You’ll find, for example, this statement: “Schools may disclose, without consent, ‘directory’ information such as a student’s 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

It’s 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 state’s laws in the Open Government Guide.

Find FOI experts in your state

You don’t have to fight for access alone. Experts in your state will be happy to help you. Check out the experts lists provided on this website, 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. See if your state has a records ombudsman or person within the attorney general’s 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. It’s 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 aren’t 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.

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 aren’t 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.

Click here to contact the Project Sunshine Chair in your state.

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