Sunshine laws on winning streak

Any cowboy will tell you: The sun goes down in the west. But for news organizations across the country, there has been plenty of sunshine west of the Mississippi River. A string of rulings in open-records and open-meetings cases were issued in state courts this fall.

In Colorado, the August release of tapes from closed-door meetings by the Mesa State College board of trustees meant an end to a six-month legal dispute between the school newspaper editor and the board.

The tapes were released as part of a settlement from a lawsuit filed in March by Megan Fromm, a Mesa State junior and the editor of the student newspaper, the Criterion.

The recordings contained the board's discussions of their search for a new university president. According to the Colorado Open Meetings Law, public bodies must hold open meetings when conducting official business. This includes personnel searches unless the candidate requests a closed session.

Fromm said the newly established board had been arrogant in its dealings with students and often alienated the college community in the process. “[The lawsuit] was the student body's way of saying to the board, 'You work for us,'” said Fromm, currently a journalism intern at the Student Press Law Center.

Since the settlement students have noticed an increased effort from the board of trustees to communicate with the college community. “The board is back to business as usual and trying to move forward with their job,” said student body President Jared Wright.

The lawsuit marked just the second time that Colorado’s open-records executive session stature was used in court to gain access to documents.

“There needs to be a higher standard of accountability that public boards are held to in Colorado,” Wright said. “[The ruling] sent a message to other boards that this could happen to us if we don’t follow the letter and spirit of the law.”

Though students at Mesa State College came away from their access settlement smiling, students at the University of Fairbanks at Alaska could not do the same.

Staff members at the Sun Star student newspaper wanted to see the arrest records of a local government official, the government official wanted privacy. In the end, a compromise was met: the police reports of the arrest were released to the university's student newspaper, but critical information was omitted.

The records stemmed from the Aug. 30, 2003, arrest of Rick Solie, a member of the North Star Borough Assembly, the legislative body of Fairbanks. Solie was charged with driving under the influence, refusing to submit to a Breathalyzer test and driving on the wrong side of the road. Solie was arrested on the University of Alaska campus by university police.

The September release of the records ended a yearlong legal battle between the university and the Sun Star, which sued the university in October 2003 to gain access to the documents.

The university and Solie contended that disclosing the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion on the privacy of the car's passenger, Cherie Solie, who is Solie's wife.

When the records were handed over to the Sun Star most of the information requested was omitted, as part of a settlement, and the paper received a "bare bones" police traffic arrest report, according to Brian O'Donoghue, Sun Star adviser and president of the Alaska Press Club. Despite the compromise, Sun Star Editor Robinson Duffy called the ruling a "symbolic victory."  

Solie's attorney, Bill Sattenburg, said it was in the Sun Star's best interest to settle the case.

"It was quite obvious that the court wasn't going to buy the Sun Star's argument," Sattenburg said. "The public doesn't have a right to know when it's a private lifestyle."

O'Donoghue said that if the court were to rule against the newspaper, it would have been detrimental to future pushes for access across the state.

“We decided to settle rather than have [a limitation on access based on privacy] spelled out in court,” he said.

Despite the Sun Star’s compromise, O'Donoghue said the case was the first time in Fairbanks that a news organization has gone to court over access. Even more, the case inspired student journalists across the state to push for access to public records, O'Donoghue said, and for that “it served its purpose."

Atthe Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, fighting for access is a tradition.

“That’s one paper that has had the resources and interest to pursue access in this state,” O'Donoghue said.

The paper recently won a case for access involving settlement records against the Anchorage School District. The paper wanted the public release of settlement records involving the school district and the parents of a student who attempted suicide on school grounds.

The Anchorage Daily News asserted that settlement agreements

involving the school district are paid for with public funds and should be disclosed.

Though the superintendent said the settlement agreements will no longer be kept private, the Anchorage Daily News is seeking an enforceable court ruling requiring the school district to keep settlement agreements public.

In Kansas, it was a conglomerate of news organizations that successfully sued the University of Kansas for access to the employment contract of the school's athletic director, Lew Perkins.

World Company, publisher of the local newspaper, the Kansas Press Association and The Associated Press brought the suit against the university after concern about how the university was spending public funds.

According to World Company Attorney Gerald Cooley, since the ruling universities throughout Kansas have been forthcoming with contract information regarding school athletic departments. In the weeks following the release of Perkins' contract, the Lawrence Journal-World has published articles analyzing employment contracts of KU's football coach and its basketball coach. The contract of Kansas State University's football coach also ended up in the pages of local newspapers.

Cooley said the release of the employment contracts was significant because the public can now see how money is being spent at state institutions. Cooley predicts that the ruling will renew a push by Kansas news organizations to get a clause put in the state open-records act that will subject publicly funded employment contracts to disclosure. For now, he said, the outlook on access to records in the state is looking positive.

"I think it will be free and open for a while," he said.

Alaska, Kansas, Mesa State College, reports, University of Fairbanks at Alaska, Winter 2004-05