NEWS RELEASE: Student Press Law Center debuts new online reference resource to help advocates enforce open-records laws





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  JULY 28, 2017

Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director   (202) 785-5450 / director@splc.org

A new suite of reference materials about enforcing open-records laws is now online courtesy of the Student Press Law Center and its nationwide network of attorney volunteers.

The SPLC debuted a new resource, "Protect Your Access Rights," that walks through the procedures and standards for bringing legal action against state and local government agencies that violate public-records statutes. The resources include model language illustrating the content and format of a typical open-records complaint. 

The SPLC worked with members of its 215-member Attorney Referral Network to create state-specific reference guides that can simplify the process of preparing a complaint if agencies refuse to honor requests for public records without a valid legal justification.  

While this growing library of materials -- now covering 26 states and the District of Columbia, with more in the works -- is not a substitute for consulting with licensed legal counsel in each state, the SPLC created the reference library in hopes of making it easier for non-experts in open-government law to take on enforcement cases. 

"The law of every state guarantees the public timely and complete access to the government records necessary for informed, participatory citizenship. Too often, educational institutions put their own self-interest in minimizing scandal and 'protecting the brand' ahead of complying with their legal duty to be transparent," said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. 

"We never encourage any journalist, student or professional, to run to the courthouse at the first sign of trouble, but educational institutions need to know they can no longer ignore their open-government obligations without consequence. Today, we're helping make it a little easier to bring colleges and schools into compliance with the laws too many of them ignore," LoMonte said.

LoMonte said the project is a logical extension of the SPLC's popular Public Records Letter Generator, which is used by students and non-students alike more than 16,000 times a year to expedite the process of obtaining public records. The letter generator is a fill-in-the-blanks online form that enables users to produce, within minutes, a formally drafted request tailored to the public-records law of their chosen state.

He emphasized that anyone planning to bring legal action against an agency to enforce the right of access to records should, wherever possible, obtain representation from knowledgeable local counsel. Students and journalism educators located anywhere in the United States can ask for help from a locally based SPLC attorney volunteer by filling out an online request form, and attorneys can volunteer to join the SPLC referral network by enrolling online through the SPLC.org website.

The SPLC works regularly with student journalists to help them challenge the wrongful denial of access to records about campus crime, safety hazards, athletic scandals and other newsworthy matters that administrators prefer to keep hidden, at times in defiance of state law. 

"The number one reason that college journalists call the SPLC for help, and increasingly high-school journalists as well, is for assistance in obtaining public records from recalcitrant educational institutions that either don't understand or don't respect their disclosure obligations," LoMonte said. "Every day, we hear a new story about how a college is holding back on records of public importance without legal justification. In fact, colleges have begun aggressively suing their own students in an attempt to impose financial hardship to punish them for requesting public records. It's our mission to help even the odds and assure that journalists are equipped with the best possible information to tell the stories that keep their communities informed." 

The Student Press Law Center is a donor-supported 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and founded in 1974 with the mission of engaging young people in civic life through the vehicle of substantive, topical journalism. The SPLC provides free educational materials and workshops about the law in addition to an attorney referral service to protect the right of students, and the educators they work with, to gather information and share ideas effectively and without fear of retaliation. 


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