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The fight for transparency and why public records matter for students too

This is an opinion piece from The Western Front Editorial Board.

Update: Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the bill that would have allowed legislators to circumvent public record disclosures on March 1. The Western Front Editorial Board is thankful the governor listened to the public, but still believes transparency is an issue — not just for the legislature, but for Western as well.

The state legislature’s rushed bill exempting them from the public records disclosure is part of a larger issue. A lack of transparency from public agencies, including Western, goes directly against the best interests of the public they are supposed to serve.

Senate Bill 6617 was created despite a Jan. 19 Thurston County Superior Court ruling that the legislature must comply with Washington’s Public Records Act. Instead of abiding by the court's decision, the legislature moved at unprecedented speed to get legislation through.

Public records provide information not only for journalists. The Public Records Act cemented the right for the public to access information about government bodies serving them. These records should be accessible, as state agencies are supposed to be working for the public. State legislators should not be exempt, especially as they are officials directly elected by those they serve. This bill would keep the process of policymaking in the dark, leaving the people without a way to know what their own government is doing and to hold officials accountable.

The argument that members of state legislature can choose not to disclose records because they “violate an individual’s right to privacy” is simply ludicrous. Once a person voluntarily submits themselves to a public office upon election, they are no longer within the private realm and exist under the public eye. The work elected officials do directly impacts state residents.

The Western Front joins in with all the major newspapers across the state in calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to act on behalf of the public, take responsibility and veto this bill. The Public Records Act was voted in by the citizens, and to restrict it in this way without any public input is to ignore the people of this state.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

Washington State Public Records Act

The role of journalists in this country has always included keeping a check on the government, holding elected officials accountable and informing the public of their doings. Access to public records allows journalists to write stories that have significant impact. Some examples include The Seattle Times’ reporting on sexual assault accusations against former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, leading to his resignation.

The Western Front relies on public records requests to work on stories about Western’s handling of sexual assault, crime on campus and reports of discrimination, especially as this information is difficult to obtain otherwise.

Transparency issues extend beyond the legislature. If Senate Bill 6617 becomes law, it would set a dangerous precedent.

Transparency at Western

Western, as a public university, is subject to the Public Records Act and must comply with records requests. However, the act is a measure to ensure transparency, not a limit. Several students who spoke to The Western Front said they felt the university administration is not transparent enough to the student body, especially when they think things will create a negative reputation for Western. The Western Front editorial board agrees. Public colleges are also businesses and it is in their best interest to keep their image pristine. From our experience, we feel Western is typically committed only to releasing information required by law, such as the records act and the Clery Act, which requires reporting violent crimes on campus. 

Western routinely redacts the names of students who are found to have violated the student conduct code for sexual misconduct, citing student privacy law. However, law experts believe this is an overextension of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This prevents students from knowing information that is important to their safety, especially considering the fact that Western has readmitted perpetrators of sexual assault in the past. Students have a right to know if the person sitting next to them in class is a rapist.

In a Board of Trustees meeting in December, President Sabah Randhawa reported that the number of public records requests at Western had doubled from 2015 to 2017. In this meeting, Randhawa said Western would be introducing a fee schedule in line with state law. Prior to this change, Western charged for the cost of physical copies of documents, but did not for electronic records. The records officer maintains discretion over this, but has alerted us that records requests can incur fees, unless the requestor chooses to just view the records in the records office.

We recognize that requests have increased, and that sometimes the Public Records Act is not used for good. But we are concerned with the introduction of fees for electronic public records. While the fee schedule is in line with state law, we are unsure what this fee is for, considering electronic records do not cost money to copy or reprint, and the public records office has said it is not to compensate the records officer. We question the intent of this fee.

As the Public Records Act says, the people do not yield sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. Western serves the people of this state, as does the legislature, and no public agency should be working to be as non-transparent as possible. They should work toward transparency as an act of accountability to the people they serve or they should step out of the public realm for demonstrating a gross misunderstanding of their role.

What can you do?

These issues matter not just to journalists, but to all of us. You have the right to know what Western, the legislature and other public institutions are doing, especially as it is supposedly on your behalf. What can you do?

Join the flood of people calling and emailing Gov. Inslee to veto this bill, and call your legislators to tell them not to override a veto in the public interest.

Tell Western you demand more information about crime on campus, including the names of perpetrators of sexual assault, not just the minimum amount they legally have to report.

Update: The Western Front incorrectly stated that the state Supreme Court ruled on the issue, when it was actually the Thurston County Superior Court. This was corrected on March 1, 2018.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Kira Erickson, Asia Fields and Melissa McCarthy.

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