Student Journalist Spotlight: Jonathan Anderson, Ultimate College Press Freedom Fighter, UW-Milwaukee

Jonathan Anderson is a terrific journalist. He has the records to prove it– most of which he requested himself. Simply put, Anderson is the ultimate college press freedom fighter. He may not be Braveheart, but he’s the epitome of Mel Gibson’s famous scream.

As the student journo extraordinaire at the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee says, “The fundamental idea of freedom of information is immensely inspiring to me.” His legwork has become inspiring to others. The former top editor and current special projects editor at The UWM Post recently earned the Student Press Law Center’s College Press Freedom Award “for his tireless advocacy in pressing for greater access to public records from the university and its student government association.”

In a recent interview, the journalism and political science double major granted CMM access inside his watchdog aura and open-record adventures. He also provides advice for student journalists looking to follow in his FOI footsteps. (Records of this interview are available by request.) :-)

Jonathan Anderson

Award-winning student journalist Jonathan Anderson smiles as the open records roll in.

Write a six-word memoir of your student journalism experience so far.

Request. Wait. FERPA! Redact/deny/release.

What has motivated you to seek out public records and push for greater disclosure so passionately?

The fundamental idea of freedom of information is immensely inspiring to me. As the theory generally goes, when government is permitted to operate in the dark, the citizenry will be ill-informed and unequipped to participate in, and ultimately sustain, democracy. I think the introductory text of Wisconsin’s public records law incorporates this idea pretty well: “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.” (Sounds pretty good until we get into the exemptions, fees, etc.!)

I believe that it is a significantly important function of the press to serve as a watchdog of government- whether it’s the White House, university administration or student government officials. Just look at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Journalists should “recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.” So my motivation lies in a deep belief that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. I also believe it’s an important duty of the press to utilize, advocate, and enforce that sacred right through freedom of information laws, including filing public records requests, publicizing government secrecy, and litigating.

What is your proudest FOIA achievement?

I was part of a team of student journalists from UW-Milwaukee that filed a request in April with Wisconsin’s attorney general asking if student governments in the University of Wisconsin System are subject to Wisconsin’s public records and open meetings laws. Students in the UW System enjoy a statutory right- indeed an obligation- to participate in university governance. This includes the responsibility of allocating tens of millions of dollars of public money every year and formulating and reviewing important institutional policies. We filed the request because of access problems with the student government at UW-Milwaukee, the UWM Student Association. It’s amazing to me that in all the years students have been involved in university governance through student government organizations this issue hasn’t been resolved. Anyway, the AG hasn’t responded yet, but we’re hoping for a response soon.

Other particularly memorable moments…

Last fall, I was conducting a system-wide records request at all four-year University of Wisconsin schools. I found it interesting in how the different UW campuses responded. A few of the chancellors e-mailed me directly. Some campuses provided records in a very timely manner. Other campuses were painstakingly slow in responding. Additionally, it was interesting to observe the formality of responses. Some campuses replied very relaxed and informally, while others responded in a very cautious, what-are-you-up-to kind of manner.

Another memorable moment was a request I made out-of-state this past summer, while I was working on a story regarding a fired university official. I wanted to get the official’s employment records from their former employer, which was a public university- but my request was immediately denied. As I found out, the state has a statutory exemption for personnel records. I contacted the state’s press association and they confirmed that the denial was legally legitimate. This experience was really the first time that I thought about the major differences in FOI laws among states. In Wisconsin, while there is no blanket exemption for personnel records, I think there are aspects of the public records law that don’t fare as well compared to other states, such as the type and quantity of fees that can be applied and the time restrictions on the government’s response.

What advice do you have for j-students looking to obtain school records?

Here are some great resources that already have very useful advice on filing records requests: Student Press Law Center, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and SPJ. Be sure to check them out!

Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. Communicate in writing as much as possible. Not only does this help as a practical matter for remembering what was requested and subsequently said, but it also ensures a solid record of communication should there be any problems with the request/response or an appeal.

2. Even if a records custodian isn’t obligated to produce a record or share information, and isn’t barred from doing so, press them on their decision to side with secrecy instead of transparency, and publicize it!

3. Push student government to comply with sunshine laws and operate transparently. The law aside, student government officials should want to conduct business with the door open.

4. Read your state’s FOI laws and know the basic provisions. Not only will this help you be a better journalist, but you’ll be more valuable to prospective employers, too.

You wake up in ten years. Where are you and what are you doing?

I’m strongly leaning toward a career as a media attorney (think Floyd Abrams or Charles Glasser at Bloomberg). But I plan to get a master’s degree first to do research on FOI policy and perhaps work as a reporter for a bit. I think such experience would be really valuable and add credibility as a newsroom lawyer.

Comments
One Response to “Student Journalist Spotlight: Jonathan Anderson, Ultimate College Press Freedom Fighter, UW-Milwaukee”
Trackbacks
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] In a Student Journalist Spotlight post last November, Jonathan Anderson, the (now former) Post editor in chief who spearheaded the records fight, told me: “I believe that it is a significantly important function of the press to serve as a watchdog of government- whether it’s the White House, university administration or student government officials. . . . So my motivation lies in a deep belief that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. I also believe it’s an important duty of the press to utilize, advocate, and enforce that sacred right through freedom of information laws, including filing public records requests, publicizing government secrecy, and litigating. […]