According to its website, Sunshine Week is a “national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.” Public colleges and universities are an extension of state and county governments since the public’s tax dollars partially fund the institutions and since many elected officials often appoint college trustees and administrators. By default, the spirit fueling Sunshine Week’s promotion of open government should be nourishing college campuses. However, it’s becoming less clear why those rays are not shining brightly on campuses.
According to the Student Press Law Center, at the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, student journalists since the summer 2006 are required to contact the university’s media relations office to obtain access or speak with university staff or faculty members. Previously, students were able to directly speak with staff. The The Crimson White’s editor-in-chief, Marlin Caddell, has stated that information is being “filtered,” interviews are not easily forthcoming, and that students’ jobs as journalists are being unnecessarily complicated. Cathy Andreen, a university spokeswoman, has stated that journalists being required to first contact an institution’s media relations staff for information is standard protocol in the business and that students are getting the access and interviews they need. However, Doug Ray, the executive editor of The Tuscaloosa News, said that paper’s reporters don’t have to contact the college’s media relations office, but he noted the frequent turnover of students journalists also does not permit the type of relationships the The Tuscaloosa News’s staff can establish. What is particularly chilling about this policy is not only the muzzle it potentially places on student journalists, but also, the way it may silence faculty and staff. If faculty and staff know that students can only communicate with them for newspaper purposes through a media relations representative, how eager will they be to directly contact student journalists? How can one office “filter” the voices of so many diverse individuals? Students working for the The Crimson White have decided not to follow this policy, so a showdown looms. For more information, check out the Student Press Law Center’s article.
Miguel Morales, a 39-year-old Johnson County Community College student in Kansas, now realizes more than ever how persistence for journalists pays off. During the August 2006 Society of Professional Journalists Conference, Morales was awarded the First Amendment Award. According to the Student Press Law Center, as a reporter for the campus’s newspaper, The Campus Ledger, Morales received two different tips about alleged sexual harassment incidents, one involving the college’s president. Two separate stories were published, and a third incident emerged later involving impropriety with overtime pay for college employees. Morales used open records requests to obtain budgetary information about overtime pay practices, but he was snowballed, possibly due to his previous sexual harassment stories: “College officials declined open records requests for budget information that would show potential overtime violations because their letters were ‘poorly worded’ and even criticized the reporters for using the Student Press Law Center’s state open records request letter generator, rather than authoring the open records letters themselves, Morales said.” Morales and other students wanted to continue reporting these incidents during the summer and started an alternative paper after the college’s Board of Trustees froze funds to publish in the summer the existing newspaper. Ever since the original stories were published, Morales said college administrators have not been forthcoming with open record requests. He said administrators either deny them completely or provide data in complex formats, such as spreadsheets, which are difficult to interpret. The college spokesperson denies this and submits that all requests have been responded to accordingly. For more information, check out the Student Press Law Center’s article.
The Campus Beat congratulates all student journalists who are using proper, ethical means of obtaining public information from college officials. Students must pursue public information professionally and diplomatically, and they must follow any appropriate processes and protocols. Student journalists have an obligation to obtain that information, and the college’s representatives have an obligation to provide it responsibly.
Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.