At FAU, student journalists report persistent difficulties accessing public records





Dylan Bouscher, a student journalist at Florida Atlantic University wanted to research the 2011 crime statistics his university reported to the federal government: one forcible sexual offense, one robbery.

The numbers seemed low, he thought. The Clery Act requires universities to keep records on and disclose information about campus crimes, among other things. So in late 2012, Bouscher decided to investigate. By reviewing police reports, he could begin to fact-check those numbers, so he submitted a request for three years’ worth of crime reports.

After Scott Silversten, FAU’s assistant vice president for communications and marketing, got the request, he asked to meet with Bouscher. It was going to be expensive because attorneys would need to review each and every document, Bouscher was told. Silversten estimated costs would be around $17,000, Bouscher said.

After months of negotiations, FAU lowered that estimate to $10,000 and eventually to just under $1,000, Bouscher said. Ten months after Bouscher made his request, the newspaper paid $900 — “which is still absurd,” he said — for the documents. (In an email, Joshua Glanzer, an FAU spokesman, disputed Bouscher’s account of the original estimate, pointing to the $10,000 figure as the original figure.)

The back-and-forth between Bouscher and the university has become increasingly tense and frequent as time goes on, said Bouscher, who, recently finished up a stint as editor of the University Press, the school’s student newspaper.

Bouscher eventually got the police records he was looking for, but says this this is just one example of an ongoing and worsening problem: The university habitually puts up barriers to prevent meaningful reporting, Bouscher said. Though administrators claim to be trying to update their procedures, there is no evidence to indicate any changes, he said.

Current and former UP editors and professional media alike all agree the university could be more responsive. Some, like Michael Koretzky, who advises UP as a volunteer, go further. Koretzky, who was fired from the university in 2010, calls FAU the “worst university for public records in the nation.”

Officials at FAU sometimes ignore public records requests or charge astronomical fees to process information, thereby making it impossible to access those records, Koretzky said.

“FAU is the worst at public records, not because they do the worst things but that they do bad things more often and with more regularity and passion than other schools,” Koretzky said.

Increasing tension

There has always been friction between UP student journalists and the administration, Bouscher said, but these problems worsened for him after former FAU President Mary Jane Saunders was accused of hitting a student with her car and fleeing the scene.

Saunders was caught in the middle of another controversy when the incident happened. In February 2013, the Board of Trustees voted to name the football stadium after the GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based company that operates prisons worldwide, after the organization donated a hefty $6 million to the university.

Students didn’t take the news well. In March of that year, protesters surrounded Saunders’ car, and in her haste to escape, she clipped a student with her vehicle’s right-side mirror. Saunders drove away without stopping.

Bouscher was quick to jump on the story. At a board of trustees meeting, The Sun-Sentinel reported that Bouscher posed this question to Saunders: “If you were the victim of a car accident would you want the driver to drive away?”

Over time, officials have begun brushing him off, Bouscher said.

“They just started flat-out ignoring me,” Bouscher said. “It’s really only gotten worse.”

When he’s had to submit records requests for stories — like when he wanted to see the police reports —Bouscher said he’s been charged fees that seem “unreasonably high.”

“It is because of a personal bias against me,” Bouscher said. “I really do just want records, and I want to tell stories.”

Other University Press staffers have noticed a deterioration in media relations at FAU too, and national outlets have also met obstacles at the Boca Raton university. The Student Press Law Center obtained all invoices issued for public records requests dating back to January 2013.

The documents show that FAU frequently charges for legal review, as well as “technical” and “clerical” fees, among other charges. In layman’s terms, the university incurs costs for time spent to search for, gather and review materials. Each fee doesn’t occur on every invoice.

Brendan Porath, a reporter with SB Nation, was charged $8,825 and $3,000 for two separate records requests — all in technical fees. According to correspondence provided by FAU, Porath had on one occasion requested “all University-maintained phone records” for three employees, which they estimated would take six hours to collect.

“I was taken aback,” Porath said. “Their response was startling. Trying to discern how they came up with that calculation was mystifying.”

Doug Brown, a staff writer for Cleveland Scene (who was at the time working for Deadspin), had requested emails from the athletic director and president to contextualize the stadium naming controversy. The request was large in scope, so he decided to touch base after receiving a $1,588.80 invoice, Brown said in an email. In a follow-up email to the university, he attempted to clarify his request.

School officials never responded, he said.

The university operates under the governor’s cost recovery policy, which allows them to charge for documents “if the nature or volume of public records requested to be inspected or copied is such as to require extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency involved, or both.”

But Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said it’s a mistake for FAU to operate under the governor’s policy. Florida government allows agencies to charge reasonable fees for “extensive use of agency resources” when fulfilling requests for public information, Petersen said. In other words, what is extensive work for one government body might be altogether different undertaking for another.

Therefore, each agency has to define what “extensive” means specifically for them, because it’s not defined in statute. So for FAU to simply adopt the governor’s policy, while it has unique operating procedures and working capabilities, is legally risky, because the term “extensive” is “wishy-washy,” she said.

High fees incurred by cost-recovery policies, unfortunately, are sometimes used to make people “go away,” Petersen said. She said requesters need to word public records requests as “narrowly as you possibly can.”

“Sometimes those fees are legitimate because you asked for a lot of those records,” Petersen said. At other times, though, “it’s just a way of bumping up the cost.”

Bouscher, for example, is often charged for legal review for documents. Petersen said agencies sometimes funnel more documents through an attorney’s office than needed.

“I do see some government agencies saying every public records request has to go through the agency’s attorney office, and I say baloney,” Petersen said. “If you’re worried about it, fine, but there’s no justification for charging me for a legal review of a commonly requested, easily redacted record.”

The three responsible in recent years for managing media and public record requests at FAU are Joshua Glanzer, Lisa Metcalf and Scott Silversten. The trio did not return numerous phone calls but Glanzer responded to questions in an email.

He denied purposefully ignoring emails or public records requests, writing that “we have always responded to a request.”

The university receives approximately 150 public records requests per year, Glanzer said.

“They vary greatly in terms of complexity and time needed to fulfill the request,” he wrote. “Two staff members, including myself, are responsible for processing the requests as part of our jobs.”

The costs are determined entirely by the time it takes to fulfill the requests, he said.

“We have a small staff that are responsible for all the media relations activities of FAU: a major, urban university with 30,000 students, thousands of faculty, four campuses, two research facilities located in the middle of one of the largest media markets in the country,” Glanzer wrote. “We are working to expand our capacity but that takes some time.”

The difficulty the University Press faces now predates Bouscher, said Gideon Grudo, who was editor in 2011 and who is now the special projects manager for Air Force Magazine.

“They made us just jump through hoops,” he said.

Without a doubt, the most-hostile era was in the wake of Koretzky’s firing, Grudo said. The vacancy Koretzky left wouldn’t be officially filled for “months and months and months,” Bowsher said, but the adviser stayed on at the paper in a volunteer capacity.

Bowsher, now a reporter with The Chronicle-Tribune in Indiana, echoed Grudo in that there wasn’t one catalyst that led to the feud between the newspaper and the university.

“The UP's had a long history of hard news, investigative news,” Bowsher said. “Being a college paper, sometimes that means taking a look at the university.”

Tensions reached a head when administrators tried to keep Bowsher from seeing Koretzky, she said.

“As soon as they saw that Koretzky had volunteered and that their plan had not worked to fire him, they tried a series of things,” Bowsher said. “I was taken into the student media director’s office and I was told ‘You and you collectively, the UP, are not to meet with Koretzky on or off campus.’ That was explicitly said.”

In effect, the university defined Bowsher as their employee, and she was told that she would be breaking university policy if she continued to acknowledge Koretzky as an adviser to the paper, she said. Public backlash — from top-tier journalism organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the College Media Association and elsewhere — seemed to provoke a change of heart in the university, which eventually backed off and allowed Koretzky to continue advising the student newspaper.

He has no plans on leaving “until the students tell me to go,” Koretzky said.

“It’s just mind-boggling — everything they try,” Bowsher said. “It’s stupid to begin with, it doesn’t work, and, in the end, it brings them so much bad publicity.”

She said that public records request and access to officials was far from perfect during her time at FAU, but it’s “nothing like Dylan has seen.”

“I don’t know if there’s been further deterioration or there’s something about Dylan,” she said.

The paper’s current editor-in-chief and Bouscher’s successor, Lulu Ramadan, believes the university treats Bouscher more harshly than other reporters.

“Dylan’s the type of reporter who’s not afraid,” she said. “I do think that they discriminate against him. I do believe they give him more trouble than they’ve ever given me.”

Ramadan is hopeful the university is taking steps to mend the relationship between the two sides. She and then-adviser Dan Sweeney have met with Glanzer to discuss their concerns. Ramadan said she thinks it could be a new beginning.

The university has “been quicker about getting our records,” Ramadan said. Sweeney said public records invoices have been lower, too.

Bouscher isn’t convinced. He shared with SPLC an email exchange with Glanzer about a rollout of new records management operations. Bouscher was told changes would come in March of this year, but Glanzer wrote: “Not sure if we’ll have it all in place by the end of March, but we still anticipate having some improvements this spring.”

“Their inaction kind of speaks for itself,” Bouscher said.


Florida Atlantic University, reports, Spring 2014, University Press
up_newsroom

University Press staff have come to expect difficulty whenever they request records or information from officials at Florida Atlantic University.