It’s not easy getting access to public records and meetings when you’re a journalist. It can be even worse when you are a student journalist. But help awaits! Below are some resources to help student journalists access government information and make campuses more transparent.
Student Press Law Center
Every college student should be familiar with this organization, which is dedicated to press freedom at universities and high schools. The Web site (http://www.splc.org/) is loaded with practical guides to accessing public records and meetings, including rights for students at private universities (http://www.splc.org/legalresearch.asp?maincat=2). The Web site also has a handy online automated letter generator (http://www.splc.org/foiletter.asp), tailored to your own state (caution: use the threatening language in the last paragraph carefully. A more neutral letter is available at http://www.rcfp.org/foi_letter/generate.php). This organization will also provide you legal advice if you are having troubles getting your school to help you out.
This organization (www.securityoncampus.org) is dedicated to making sure college students are aware of dangers on their campuses. Daniel Carter, firstname.lastname@example.org is an expert on the Clery Act, which requires universities to make campus crime information public, including crime logs and annual statistics. The Web site also provides Department of Education crime data for campuses nationwide.
Covering campus crime
This is such a good publication by the Student Press Law Center that it deserves its own entry. It’s available at http://www.splc.org/pdf/ccc3.pdf and there’s talk of coming out with a fourth edition in fall 2008.
Department of Education FERPA site
Often school officials will say everything is secret, even the basic fact that a student attends the school, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Refer those officials to this official Web site for the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces FERPA (http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html). You’ll find, for example, this statement: “Schools may disclose, without consent, ‘directory’ information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance.” Also refer them to Clery Act information if they hide serious crime information on campus under the guise of FERPA.
Find FOI experts in your state
You don’t have to fight for access alone. Experts in your state will be happy to help you. Check out the experts lists provided on this Web site, such as a coalition for open government, your press association, or SPJ sunshine chair, to find someone who can answer FOI questions and even go to bat for you. Also contact SPJ if you are running into problems. Sometimes large media organizations will provide legal assistance for students fighting secrecy. Also, SPJ FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson (email@example.com) is an expert on access to campus crime records. See if your state has a records ombudsman or person within the attorney general’s office to mediate disputes. When you are denied information, contact experts to see if your school is correct. Quote them in stories exposing the secrecy.
Get to know your campus public records officer
Most campuses designate a person to handle public records requests. It’s a thankless job, caught between pushy requesters and secretive bureaucrats. Get to know this person. Express an interest in what they do, because it will help you be a better journalist. Find out what records they often hand out, looking at their FOI log they use to track requests. Find out what records aren’t requested but should be.