'Sunshine' forecast for La. minors

High school student inspires legislature to give minors the right to view records

LOUISIANA -- When a 16-year-old Michael Wayne Barker requested records from his school district about computer- and technology-related purchases, he had no intention to start a yearlong journey to change state open-records laws -- he just wanted to make a few money-saving suggestions.

“My original intention was to review the records and make a recommendation on how we could attempt to save money on technology purchases. I am very knowledgeable in computers, and I felt we could save money in our purchases,” said Barker, who at 17 will be a senior this fall at Jena High School in Jena, La.

The result of that original intention is a new amendment to the Louisiana Public Records Act that allows minors access to copies of public records. Prior to the amendment, Louisiana was the only state that did not allow minors to use open-records laws to gain access to public information.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed the amendment into law in July.

In June 2003, Barker sent an open-records request to the LaSalle Parish School Board, but he did not get a prompt response.

“I made my first request -- ignored, my second request -- ignored, my third request -- ignored,” he said.

After sending a fourth letter and visiting the board’s office, Barker finally heard back from his school board.

“I received a two-page letter saying my request was rejected because I am not the age of majority, and that I was ‘not entitled to that information,’” he said.

The school board declined to comment on the issue.Because of his age at the time of the request, the Louisiana Public Records Act did not require school officials to grant his request, although the law did not prohibit them from doing so.

To obtain public records in the state, the law required a person to have reached the age of majority, which is 18 in Louisiana.

His request denied, Barker contacted adult friend Fannie Godwin, an activist from Baton Rouge, to retrieve the records for him and started to research his rights. He found a report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana recommending that the state remove the age requirement on the Louisiana Public Records Act.

“I went through all the research to find that Louisiana was the only state with an age requirement -- the only state,” he said. “We needed to take this negative and turn it into a positive.”

Barker, who describes himself as “the kind of person who, when I say I’m going to do something, I do it,” was now on a mission. 

“I’ve always been interested in politics, and I knew that if you wanted to change a state law you would have to go through your senator or representatives,” he said.

With research in hand, Barker contacted his state representative, T.D. “Tommy” Wright, D-Jena. Upon sharing his story with Wright, the state representative was on board.

“He came to me and told me that he was requesting information from our school board and they wouldn’t give it to him because he was a minor,” Wright said. “Once I learned that he went to numerous school boards meeting and asked questions and they would just sit there and let him stand, you know, just intimidating him ...that really was the fuel in the fire in me helping him.”

Although he was unfamiliar with the age requirement of the open-records law, Wright said that upon learning about it, he knew it was something that was not in the public’s best interest.

“You want to encourage as much openness in government as you possibly can, and [the old law] dissuades anyone younger from getting involved in the process,” he said.

Wright became the sponsor of House Bill 492, legislation that would amend the Louisiana Public Records Act. Between traveling back and forth between Baton Rouge to testify before the state Legislature, writing his representatives and going to the school board meetings where he asked about the records, Barker estimated the process took weeks out of his schedule. The bill passed in the House, but ran into a setback in the Senate. 

Barker’s senator, Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro, refused to handle the bill in the senate. Ellington does not handle any of Wright’s bills because “continuing conflicts” between the politicians, The Town Talk, an area newspaper, reported. After getting Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, to handle the bill in the Senate, it passed June 20. 

“This law will bring us in-line with other states and it will encourage young people that are in high school working on civics projects or learning about state government or expressing a desire, maybe younger than many of their peers, to get involved in local or state government,” Wright said. “I think it’s a win for the public ...and a win for minors that we have taken a step forward on their behalf.” 

Although the new amendment removes the age restriction, minors are only allowed copies of official documents, not the documents themselves.

The 17-year-old said he plans to request again the files he was denied over a year ago.

“I will still be 17 when this law goes into effect on August 15 and I will be making a public records request to the school board. I am hoping that when they choose to grant my request I will be able to come up with a recommendation [to help the district save money on technology purchases],” Barker said. 

Craig Freeman, assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, said the new law gives high school journalists new opportunities for what they can cover.

“It allows student journalists to have more tools to investigate the bodies that have some control over them,” he said.

Freeman added that the law would only be beneficial if high school media advisers make students aware of their new right to information.Barker said he hopes the law will help empower other politically active minors and high school journalists.

“I do believe that [minors who request public records] need to be taken seriously and, if not, I hope that minor would do what is necessary to get that record,” Barker said. “Look at what I did'I used information I learned in civics class and got a law changed.”

LAW: R.S. 44:31 (B) and R.S. 32(c) (1)(d)

Fall 2004, Louisiana, reports