My experience with public records contradicts Western’s narrative
Guest column by Erasmus Baxter
As a student journalist responsible for a number of public records requests, I want to respond to some of the assertions made in the university’s response to the journalism professors’ editorial about Western’s handling of public records.
While it may seem like a niche issue, the accessibility of records has a huge impact on what Western students and faculty are able to know about the functioning of the university. From the undisclosed contract to bring in more international students to handling of sexual harassment and assault, all have required public records requests to get the facts out. The speed with which those records are able to be accessed is especially crucial with the limited time student reporters have to wait, as most reporting and editing positions end after a quarter.
While I know Dolapo Akinrinade, Paul Mueller and Jennifer Sloan are hardworking and well-intentioned public servants, my experience does not seem to square with what they describe in the column—particularly the assertion Western scrupulously follows records laws.
In one instance, the records office redacted all information about the amount Western would pay Study Group, a company that recruits international students, from its contract with Western, claiming it was a trade secret. However, Washington state courts have affirmed amounts paid for services by government agencies are public record, as recently as in Belo Management Services, Inc. v. Click! Network (2014).
In another instance, I received a call from the records officer last spring asking to delay providing records because she was leaving on vacation. This is not a reason laid out in state law to delay providing records, and is a sign that Western isn’t providing the employees or support necessary to fulfill its legal duties.
In a third instance, earlier this month, I did not receive contact from the record’s office on the date they set to provide records. When I followed up the next day via email, I was informed that the deadline had been extended an additional 18 days, after waiting three weeks already, to give named employees time to consider seeking injunctions. Many of those employees could have been reached by a simple email, or at least contacted in the previous three weeks in which the records were being processed.
On this point, the Risk, Compliance and Policy Services employees who wrote the editorial said the ability to seek injunctions is one source of delays beyond their control. However, in my experience, I have never had anyone actually seek an injunction for records I requested.
Instead, the delays have come from the records officer contacting named people and giving them time to consider seeking injunctions, something that is the records officer’s choice to do.
While they are required to give employees notice for items from personnel files, even then it is only seven days in advance. Washington’s administrative code also notes that most agencies only allow 10 days, if they decide to give notice.
State law is clear that an injunction can only be granted if the release of the document is clearly not in the public interest or would irreparably harm government function. Many of these records would be highly unlikely to meet either criteria.
State law is also clear that the burden of the Public Records Act is toward transparency, even going so far as to legally require records officers to be helpful. Not using discretion in exercising the option to inform third parties feels like an impediment to this purpose, and slows important watchdog reporting.
In regards to the North Carolina case, while obviously it is in a different state, the records law is similar to Washington’s in its philosophical insistence that records be as open as possible. The editorial mentions that federal privacy law, or FERPA, requires names be redacted unless a waiver is signed. What it doesn’t mention is a FERPA exemption the case hinged upon, which allows the release of names in cases where a student has been found to have committed a sex crime or crime of violence.
Furthermore, while the editorial writers complain about the broad scope of requests, that scope is often necessitated by the university’s unwillingness to be transparent and discuss what records might be out there or what is happening on campus.
Many records requests have come from increased coverage of sexual assault and harassment at Western. The records have been crucial to covering these cases, and I can say for certain that student journalists intend to keep covering this issue as thoroughly as we can and as students demand.
If departments are being swamped by records requests, perhaps Western should consider hiring a full-time records officer to handle the issue, instead of trying to spread out the position’s responsibilities to multiple employees who have other jobs. They could also consider establishing an online records repository to allow access to some records requests, as most state and local agencies do and is literally recommended by law.
Western also lacks a dedicated viewing station for public records. When I inquired about viewing records to avoid the costs associated with copies, as is my legal right, I was told that I would have to sit in the records officer’s office, which was presented as being an inconvenience since she needed to do work in that office.
This lack of resources seems to reflect an institutional view of the records act as an obnoxious obligation instead of an opportunity to promote transparency.
Washington’s Public Records Act may be an inconvenience for the university, but it is an essential part of holding our government accountable. Complaining about the inconvenience is like complaining about the inconvenience of public debate on legislation; it would be less work for government without it, but then we wouldn’t be in a democracy. Instead of seeing public records as an inconvenience to be dealt with, or a danger to guard people against, Western should embrace its democratic duty and strive to be as transparent as possible.
Erasmus Baxter is a former Western Front editor-in-chief and the current editor-in-chief of the AS Review.