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In limiting access to public records, Western hurts students

Guest column by Carolyn Nielsen, Brian J Bowe, Sheila Webb and George Erb

There’s an old saw in journalism: If your mama says she loves you, check it out. Its take-nothing-for-granted foundation is at the heart of what journalists do – investigate, verify claims, scrutinize systems to see if things are working as they were designed.

Without access to public information, that job is difficult, if not impossible.

Over the past year, Western staff and administrators have impeded student journalists’ access to public information by stalling, ignoring requests, refusing to answer questions, redacting documents to the point they were useless, bouncing student requests from person to person, barring a student journalist from a meeting and increasingly funneling access through a single channel of control that appears more concerned with the university’s public image than with ensuring financial accountability and student safety.

This is not how things are supposed to work.

Western is a publicly funded university and, as such, should seek to uphold the highest ideals of transparency and openness in allowing scrutiny of its institutional priorities, policy and operations.

The chilling effect of institutional secrecy is often insidious rather than revolutionary. It usually begins in small ways.

As journalism professors (and former journalists), we have had a front-row seat to these tactics, which range from students with simple questions about what was included in a budget item being told all journalism students have to go through University Communications to the more serious issue of the university’s refusal to provide names of students they have found responsible for committing acts of sexual misconduct or sexual assault. 

Over the past year, our students have requested and received records from Eastern

Illustration by Julia Furukawa.

Washington University and Central Washington University within days while Western has said processing similar (although, admittedly, often less detailed) requests will take months. Our students regularly request city, county, state and federal records and receive full information within days.

The university is legally responsible to respond within five business days to indicate whether and when the information will be available, but it’s clear that other government agencies are making information available much more quickly. Stalling isn’t illegal, but it’s certainly not a good look.

The delays are only part of the problem. Outright refusal is also cause for concern. An April investigation published jointly by The Western Front and The AS Review uncovered a second instance  of the administration readmitting a student after suspending that student for sexual misconduct. The university also learned that the student had failed to disclose a previous conviction for sexual abuse.

There is no way to know how many times this may have happened or continues to happen because the university continues to redact reports containing the names of those found responsible for acts of sexual violence.

The university has held fast in its position despite the April ruling by a North Carolina Court of Appeals that the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act does not protect release of the names of students, faculty and staff who are found responsible in cases of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. As a result of that decision, the University of North Carolina was ordered to release the names in documents to the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, which brought the lawsuit.

Even with this court ruling and the Student Press Law Center’s senior counsel’s contention that Western should release the names of the accused, the university has continued to deny access to that public information.

"The administration chose closure over transparency in regard to an important safety issue of concern to the entire campus community."

The state’s Public Records Act is clear in its intent. It states, “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. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.”

Problems with access have also been noted. A Front reporter was denied access to a March committee meeting discussing classroom safety in case of an active shooter. The university’s assistant attorney general said the committee was a non-acting body and not subject to the Open Meetings Act, but barring journalist access was a choice. The paper appealed to President Sabah Randhawa, but was not allowed inside the meeting and instead had to report on the issue by interviewing attendees after the fact.

The administration chose closure over transparency in regard to an important safety issue of concern to the entire campus community.

Stories published in The Western Front last year won all three Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence awards for in-depth reporting for large college newspapers in a five-state region.

Those stories examined the university’s handling of cases involving a volunteer track coach and convicted felon who was accused of breaking into women’s dorm rooms and putting on residents’ clothing and bras, and the university’s decision to readmit a student who had been convicted of sexually assaulting another student.

This chilling effect, which we can only hope is not a response to coverage critical of the university, interferes with student journalists’  — and the public’s — ability to examine the university’s procedures and decisions.

Although journalists have no special rights not also given to members of the public, student journalists are often the only ones reporting on their institutions.

When a university refuses to provide public information, hides essential information behind heavy redactions, delays fulfilling records requests and closes down access to such a chokepoint that it takes weeks or even months to get information, it is harmful to student journalists and the public they serve.

Timely access to open and public records is a core value of democratic freedom.

Nielsen, Bowe, Webb and Erb teach in Western's Department of Journalism.

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