UGA Journalism Student Reflects on FOIA Battle, ‘Internet Storm,’ Secret Presidential Searches

David Schick did not set out to be a free speech hero. He simply wanted some information.

A few years ago, Schick, a University of Georgia journalism student (one with strong opinions on 21st-century j-education) requested and posted some public documents on his personal blog. That was (Freedom of Information) Act 1.

(Freedom of Information) Act 2: State attorney general Sam Olens recently pushed for him to remove a portion of those docs because they contained the names of people who had applied a while back to be UGA president. As Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) rep and college media mentor extraordinaire Michael Koretzky put it, “That’s right, Olens doesn’t want you to know the names of people who applied for a job and didn’t get it.”

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(Freedom of Information) Act 3: Some SPJers, journos and journalism educators publicly posted the same documents as Schick in a coordinated show of defiance against the AG’s takedown efforts. Their collective message (paraphrasing SPJ president David Cuillier): If you want to unfairly target one of us, you better be ready to fight all of us.

(Freedom of Information) Act 4: Olens blinked first, rescinding the removal order.

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And finally, (Freedom of Information) Act 5: Celebration, reflection and a bit of brooding.

First, celebration. Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte: “There’s no question this needless intimidation tactic would have dragged on for many more weeks without SPJ’s timely intervention. The attorney general’s office thought they could push around one little student blogger, but they didn’t realize they were taking on an entire profession.”

Next, reflection. Columbia Journalism Review’s Susannah Nesmith and Jonathan Peters: “[W]e’re glad the motion died an early death. But it never should have taken its first breath. . . . [T]he motion failed to acknowledge that no First Amendment right is more secure than the right to publish free from government control.”

And as the stage lights dim, a smidgen of brooding. Schick: “It would be great if the AG’s office is withdrawing . . . because they realize it was legally unsupportable in the first place. However, if they are just withdrawing it because they now realize that — in the age of the Internet — it would be impossible to track down everyone who might already have republished this material, that is less encouraging.”

Below is an exclusive post-show Q&A with Schick about his original records request and the “Internet storm” it recently wrought.

What is the story behind the records request and posting that triggered this fight?

The original record request was made back in July 2012. I was seeking information related to the budgetary deficit at the college I was attending, where I was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. The $16 million — later turned $25 million — budget shortfall led to 282 layoffs and no one seemed to know how or why this happened.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia engaged in several delay tactics — from inflating the cost of the open records to completely withholding them from me. After many attempts to resolve this amicably, I then took legal action by filing a lawsuit in June of last year. Three months after filing, they produced 713 pages of documents that they claimed were sitting in the office of a top USG official and that the official was “not aware” they were there.

It was in these 713 pages that the USG “inadvertently produced” four pages of records — which related to a presidential search at one of their colleges — that they could have withheld.

Any production of open records that I have received from the USG, or any other agency, has been posted on my blog along with my stories. I think that’s what a journalist should do after you’ve written your story. They are public records, so you should release them to the public.

“Any production of open records that I have received . . . has been posted on my blog along with my stories. I think that’s what a journalist should do after you’ve written your story. They are public records, so you should release them to the public.”

How did the state AG’s office communicate its request to have the records removed? And what was your honest first reaction?

The AG’s office first brought up the request on the first day of trial, which was held last month. They requested that the judge issue an order from the bench requiring me to remove the records. I was completely surprised by their request and, frankly, I thought the idea to force me to remove public documents was absurd.

The judge declined the AG’s request and after trial the AG’s office sent a letter requesting that I take down the pages and gave me some “suggestions,” including a proposed blog post, on how I should go about it. A few weeks after, they filed the motion to force me to remove them.

Do you think you were targeted due to your independent blogger status or even perhaps because you are a student?

I don’t think so. Honestly, this just goes to show the types of lawyers the AG’s office has working for them. I think the story by Columbia Journalism Review described it best. They wrote that the motion “was absurd, had no basis in law and might as well have been written in crayon, given the quality and seriousness of the state’s arguments.”

What’s your take on all the assistance and attention your case has received? Is it strange to be a First Amendment hero of sorts?

I think “hero” is a strong word. I have had boatloads of help from journalists all over. They are the ones who are the heroes. Some people have painted this as a “David vs. Goliath” battle, but it feels more like a team effort to me. I would have had no chance in this fight without all the support I’ve received thus far. And I want to express my gratitude to all the journalists, lawyers, bloggers and everyone else who have, directly or indirectly, helped my cause.

As a journalist and a student, what do you think about the larger emerging trend involving top-secret university president searches?

I don’t understand why universities see the need to do their presidential searches in private, especially at a public institution. Why shouldn’t the public be able to participate in the process of selecting a top-level public employee? When political candidates run for public office, they have to announce to everyone their intentions, and there’s no such thing as a secret primary. Why don’t we hold every public office at an executive level in the same regard?

In some states, presidential searches are conducted completely in the open. The only argument for conducting these searches in private is to protect the applicants from retribution at their current universities. Or perhaps, if everyone at the campus knew the college president was looking elsewhere, the school’s faculty and staff would lose faith in their leader.

While I’m not as well traversed as others on the national higher education beat, I’ve not once heard of a college president losing his or her job because they applied to be president at another university. It seems more likely to me that the president would benefit from a pay increase or other perks to get him or her to stay.

Another argument for why we absolutely need open presidential searches: The press should have the right to vet candidates. For example, a college newspaper at a community college in Oregon discovered that a presidential applicant, who asserted he was on “sick leave,” was actually on administrative leave for potential sexual misconduct. And the college newspaper knew about this before the college did.

Any advice for students seeking to request or post public docs?

My advice: Do it! Get experience with open records while you’re in college. If you’ve never submitted an open records request before, it doesn’t matter what you’re requesting, just submit one. Become familiar with what the process is like with your school, your county or your state. Create an open records request template for your college newspaper.

Develop relationships with the designated public information officers. In some cases, when you know them well enough, you can just pick up the phone and ask.

And for the most part, post everything you get. Of course, you need to exercise good editorial judgement — like if you’re doing a story about sexual assault, protecting the names of victims. But for the most part, you should share every public record you get. Just because you did the public records request doesn’t mean they’re yours. They belong to the public.

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