Trend Alert: Schools Making It More Expensive for Student Journalists to Obtain Public Records

The Matthew Knight Arena is having trouble filling up.  The University of Oregon sports complex– part of the “athletic splurge of the past decade” at the Eugene, Ore., school– is sadly often housing games and events that are watched by more empty seats than fans.

For a story last semester on this emptiness— and the real and projected revenue losses it represents– incoming Emerald editor in chief Sam Stites asked the school for “data on ticket sales.” It’s a legally A-OK request according to the state’s public records laws.  The school’s response, however, was less A-OK and more #UOAbsurd.

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UO administrators charged Stites $109.24 for the records and told him it would take 13 days to compile them. After mentioning this anecdote, dollar amount, and amount of time to a friend, she described her reaction as flummoxed. I responded that it was oh-so-close to the exact description of Stites’ own reaction– just add on a few syllables and replace the flum with flab.

Flabbergasted.  According to The Register-Guard, “Stites was flabbergasted.”  As he wondered at the time, “How long does it take to call somebody and say, ‘Hey, don’t you have this document?  Cool.  E-mail it to me.  There you go.’  To me, it’s really that easy.”

What Stites and many other student (and professional) journalists are increasingly finding instead with these types of requests: They ain’t easy.  And increasingly, they are also not cheap.

The assessment of Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte, paraphrased by the Register-Guard: “[M]ore and more universities across the country are making it more expensive to get public records.”

In his own words, “Agencies have figured out that journalists don’t have the money to pay for public records, and they don’t have the time to file lawsuits, and so their default response is to cite some jackpot (dollar) amount that they know will be prohibitively large. It’s a way of discouraging people from being inquisitive.”

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The Emerald crew is choosing action over discouragement.  They have launched SunshineCampus (no spacing) to raise awareness and hopefully funds “to support investigative reporting and public records research.”  As a new website explains, “Emerald readers have increasingly asked our student journalists to produce more serious public interest news.  But as a small nonprofit company, the Emerald struggles to pay $100 or more to fulfill even small requests.”

Want some Sunshine for your own student press outlet?  Check out the site and then contact Stites.  My advice: Tell him who you are, or simply type 109.24 in the subject line. :)

Related

College Newspaper of the Year, 2012-2013: The Emerald, University of Oregon

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Comments
3 Responses to “Trend Alert: Schools Making It More Expensive for Student Journalists to Obtain Public Records”
  1. Matthew Cameron says:

    The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia launched a similar fund earlier this year after its administration began charging more to fulfill public records requests. You can donate here: http://www.cavalierdaily.com/page/donate

  2. Christopher Harper says:

    That is bad news, but it’s worse in Pennsylvania. School records of Penn State, Temple, Pittsburgh and some others are not available under public information statutes.

  3. Ivar Vong says:

    If you like the site, feel free to use the code — it’s on GitHub [1]. (MIT license) You’ll have to rewrite some copy and wire up your own PayPal button, though. :)

    Please do contact Sam if you’re interested in setting up a similar site in another newsorg.

    1: https://github.com/dailyemerald/sunshinecampus