New Penn. law opens access to more public records

PENNSYLVANIA -- A bill updating the state's more-than-50-year-old open records law was signed by Gov. Ed Rendell Feb 14.

The new law revising the state's much-criticized open records act will make it easier to access some information at public colleges and universities but will not extend to some state-supported institutions.

Before the update, Pennsylvania's law was widely regarded as one of the worst in the nation, according to attorney Craig Staudenmaier. He represented the student newspaper Patriot News when it sued the Pennsylvania State University Employees Retirement System to access information about football coach salaries.

Staudenmaier said the main problem with the older law was that government records were assumed to be closed unless those requesting records could prove that they concerned an agency's use of public funds or related to decisions of a public body, such as the minutes of a meeting.

The updated Right-To-Know Law, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, introduces a number of reforms. All records will assumed to be open unless government agencies can prove the information should be exempt from release.

"Many times, we say that legislation is 'historic' or call it a 'landmark' piece of legislation," Pileggi in a Feb 15 press release. "Sometimes, that's a bit of a stretch. But I think those words accurately describe Senate Bill 1. For the first time in over 50 years, we have a modern, responsive Open Records Law in Pennsylvania."

The law, which will not fully take effect until January 2009, requires that public institutions designate one person to handle open records requests. The law also establishes an Office of Open Records that would allow those whose requests have been denied recourse for appeal short of litigation.

"We think overall it is a great position. It creates an administrative process, it allows people to appeal decisions; there are a number of positives," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

Melewsky said that the association is concerned about some parts of the new law. For example, Melewsky cited exceptions that shield information about autopsy reports and information about those under the age of 17.

The law allows an agency to refuse to release records "identifying the name, home address, or date of birth of a child 17 years of age or younger."

Melewsky said that this could affect reporting on topics as common as what students made the honor roll for a given semester.

But Melewsky said she believes the bill is a remarkable improvement.

"It is never going to be perfect, but I believe it is a huge leap forward," Melewsky said.

The new law mandates procedures for how public institutions are to deal with open records requests, and it creates specific definitions for the types of institutions that are subject to records requests. This includes colleges and universities under the State System of Higher Education.

The law also defines community colleges as public institutions subject to Pennsylvania's open records laws.

That provision effectively reverses a 1996 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision. The court ruled against the Community College of Philadelphia's student newspaper, Student Vanguard, which sued for access to campus police records after the paper's open-records request for the documents was denied. The state Supreme Court decided that the community college did not perform an "essential government function" and would not be subject to the state's open record laws.

Other state court decisions at that time had ruled that universities like Temple University and Pennsylvania State University were not subject to open records requests, despite the fact that they receive a substantial amount of public funding.

The new law defines Temple University, Lincoln University, University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University as "state-related institutions," which are not subject to the same open records requirements as public institutions and community colleges. These "state-related" universities, however, will now be required submit an annual report that will disclose administrative salaries and other tax information.

Joseph Sullivan, who represented the Student Vanguard, said that during the past 12 years a dramatic increase in public funds into colleges and universities had increased the expectation of accountability.

"The viewpoint is that with this enormous investment that we should know what they are doing," Sullivan said.

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