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University: Western follows public records laws, doesn't stall

Guest column by Dolapo Akinrinade, Paul Mueller and Jennifer Sloan

Dolapo Akinrinade is Western’s Public Records Officer and University Policy Manager. Jennifer Sloan is Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General and Rules Coordinator with Western's Risk, Compliance and Policy Services and Paul Mueller is director of Risk, Compliance and Policy Services.

In a May 9 column in The Western Front, several journalism faculty members said that Western is stalling on the release of public records. We feel that is inaccurate. The university scrupulously follows the law regarding public records.

First, some information on the process of public records requests at Western.

The public records officer will respond to a public records request within five business days of receipt of the request in the Public Records Office. She acknowledges receipt of the request, identifies the Western department or office holding the records and requests records from those departments or offices.

Depending on availability of records, the volume of records responsive to the request, the legal review and redaction necessary, the five-day response typically takes one of the following forms: either the records are provided as requested, or the requestor is provided with a deadline date to receive the records.

In their column, the faculty members claim that journalism students have received records more quickly from other universities. But were those the exact same requests? Often the size of the request – and the ability of university offices to fill the requests – significantly impacts how long requests take to be completed. 

Like many public institutions across the state, Western has seen a significant increase in the number of public records requests, from 79 in 2016 to 132 in 2017 to 71 so far this year, which is not yet half over.

Of the 79 public records requests in 2016, 20 were from  media, nearly all student  media. That increased to 51 media requests in 2017 and 40 so far this year.

More and more, we hear from already overtaxed offices on campus who say their operations are adversely affected by public records requests, sometimes involving thousands of pages of documents stretching back years. Certain university offices receive multiple large public records requests at the same time. Those documents don’t magically appear; they must be assembled by each office’s staff, often a tedious and time-consuming process.

Perhaps journalism faculty, as part of the education process, might work more closely with journalism students on the types and scope of public records they are requesting? From our perspective, narrowing and focusing requests would assist in reducing time to receive such records.

Upon receipt of records from an office or department, the public records officer reviews them, and then redacts any records or references which fall under legal exemptions. To aid the requestor in understanding why certain records have been redacted, the public records officer develops an exemption log, which explains the exemptions applied.

"More and more, we hear from already overtaxed offices on campus who say their operations are adversely affected by public records requests, sometimes involving thousands of pages of documents stretching back years."

Another factor that can contribute to a delay is that, once the records have been assembled, anyone named in the records has the right to petition the court for an enjoinment to not release their name or other information. Enjoinment is a legal process through the court system and the timeline or dates for a hearing on the question of enjoinment is set by the court and not controlled by the university.

In their column, the journalism faculty also say that, “the university continues to redact reports containing the names of those found responsible for acts of sexual violence” including students, faculty and staff. They cite a North Carolina state court ruling as the basis for why Western should release more detailed information. The implication is that the university is deliberately withholding such records through “heavy redaction.”

   Contrary to that view, the North Carolina court ruling is not applicable, especially as it likely applies to a North Carolina state public records law, which has no jurisdiction over Western or the state of Washington. The university is following Washington state and federal law supported by the advice of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. In terms of students, that includes the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects the privacy of students’ educational records. Western applies a U.S. Department of Education FERPA regulation that requires the “de-identification” of any student from a student’s records before the records are released – unless the student has signed a waiver allowing that student’s identity to be disclosed.

The university administration recently reexamined and reaffirmed that this is the proper, legal response to any and all requests of student records. So the university redacts information as it must under law. Western is a public institution and is committed to providing public records as outlined above. We are happy to provide records to journalism students and any others seeking public records. But to imply that Western is stalling is both inaccurate and an unfair blanket criticism of many hard-working university employees seeking to do their jobs well and according to law.

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