As a professor at a public university, my professional life is an open book. My résumé is public, my salary is public, my promotion and tenure file is public, students’ evaluations of my teaching is public, even my e-mail is public. The public has a right to see the list of phone calls I make every month, what I said for the minutes of faculty meetings, and how I spend my department’s money.
I knew all of that going in to this line of work. But I sense that very few employees at public colleges really think about that transparency, and, when asked to reveal such details, often react with suspicion and resistance.
It was with that culture of confidentiality in mind that students in our campus chapter of SPJ decided to tackle an open-records audit — university style.
The goal was to see how well the public four-year schools in Ohio would accommodate public-records requests. But rather than work as journalists through media-relations experts, we wanted to test Sunshine Law compliance among the rank-and-file employees of those public offices.
We expected low compliance, but certainly not to the degree we found. Having sought 88 total records across 15 campuses in the state, offices provided access to records just 41 percent of the time — and 17 percent of the requests were granted only after students identified themselves and their reasons for seeking the records, which is not required under Ohio’s Public Records Act.
Nearly a third of the requests were denied outright, either because office workers didn’t know whether a record was for the public or, sometimes, because they thought such information simply wasn’t for public review. More than a quarter of the documents couldn’t be obtained due to closed offices and absent personnel, even though the audit was conducted during normal business hours, and Ohio law makes the public office — not a designated individual in that office — responsible for providing the records.
All the records we sought were deemed to be public records by a Sunshine Law attorney of our state’s newspaper association. We sought the records in the offices most likely to keep that information (the law says even incomplete computer files are public record). Students were to identify themselves and their purposes only if they were told that was the only way they could gain access to the records.
Not surprisingly, the public relations folks at many of the schools were critical of our audit. One even told a major newspaper in the state that the audit was “shoddily done” because we didn’t go straight to the media-relations office. I think that fellow missed the point and might want to treat the cause of his campus’s FOI illness.
The audit itself was a great project for a campus chapter. In all, we had about two dozen members serve as auditors, reporters and editors. Because our school has students from all over the state, the students were able to do the audit over their winter break (although they made sure the university offices were supposed to be open on the days they did the audit). Because it was going to take almost a full academic year to plan, conduct, and report on the audit, and would require students to work on it during winter and spring breaks, the project worked far better for SPJ than it would have for a set class.
One thing that helped is that I had participated in three public-records audits before — two in Pennsylvania, one in Ohio — so I knew essentially how to set up such things, and also what problems auditors likely would face. A huge help is that I have a strong professional relationship with our state press association, the director of which was more than happy to provide free legal review of our project to make sure the records we were seeking actually were public records.
One of the challenges was helping students overcome their natural anxiety about conducting the audit and, more daunting, helping them overcome their instincts to identify themselves as reporters from the get-go. We used several role-playing training sessions (with me as the “grumpy secretary”) to help them practice before the audit.
The best part of the project, though, was that the whole chapter of about 75 students spent a whole year getting hands-on experience with FOI issues. And for the two dozen who worked on the project? They certainly will have a lifelong devotion to keeping the public’s information public.
Bill Reader is a professor and SPJ chapter advisor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.