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TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Wave of recent court rulings eases computer-assisted reporters' access to government databases

(07/09/13 5:13pm)

Remember that iconic scene in "All the President's Men" where hours tick by at the Library of Congress as reporters Woodward and Bernstein flip through mounting piles of index cards, each one memorializing a book requested by the White House? Chances are if Post reporters need that same information today, it's kept in an Excel spreadsheet that can be sorted, searched and alphabetized in a matter of seconds. Electronic databases are making it possible for journalists to analyze and present information that previously would have overwhelmed the limits of human patience.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Illinois ruling confirms U can FOIA txts -- 2G2BT

(07/30/13 9:59pm)

The public is entitled to know what city council members are talking about during meetings. Even when their thumbs are doing the talking. That's the takeaway from a new ruling from an Illinois court, which affirms that messages exchanged by government officials -- even on their personal cellphones -- are public records that must be produced on request. In City of Champaign v.

IRE provides tipsheets from investigative journalists

(07/02/13 2:53pm)

For journalists looking to add depth to their stories, Investigative Reporters and Editors has provided a great compilation of presentations and tipsheets from presenters at their June 2013 conference. We’ve pulled a few of our favorites, but the whole treasure trove of information is available here. • A presentation by The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Coulter Jones and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times’ Jessica Savage guides journalists through finding and using data to strengthen stories “on any beat.” • NPR’s Margot Williams offers a list of resources that can help journalists find public records, information about non-profits and charities, archives and data. • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Kevin Crowe gives advice on looking into “chronic absenteeism” and school funding.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Are college fundraisers exempt from open-records statutes? That's a claim without foundation.

(07/02/13 6:45pm)

A public university system sets up a fundraising arm to collect donations, entirely staffed by public employees and operated out of a government office building. If you don't see how that fundraising unit can be exempt from the disclosure laws that apply to government agencies, you're not alone. Neither did the attorney general of North Dakota,Wayne Stenehjem, who told the North Dakota University System that the records of money collected and spent by the North Dakota University System Foundation are a matter of public record and must be disclosed on request. In a ruling issued June 25, Stenehjem explained that there is essentially no separation between the university system and the privately incorporated "foundation" that the university system established in 1991 as a vehicle for receiving donations. The analysis was pretty much of a no-brainer, since the foundation has no staff or offices of its own, is run by board members who overlap with the State Board of Higher Education, and exists almost exclusively for the purpose of providing a vehicle to reimburse university system officials for expenses beyond what state law allows.

Proposal to impose state-level penalties for FERPA violations cut from final version of Arizona legislation

(07/03/13 4:51pm)

Arizona's governor has signed into law a bill that sets out steps to take for those who believe a school has “knowingly violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.” The original version of the bill, introduced in the state Senate in February, would have allowed the state's Department of Education to withhold 10 percent of the school's monthly state aid if the problem was not fixed within 60 days.

Are governments with stronger FOI laws also more corrupt? A new study challenges "good government" assumptions.

(07/05/13 11:17am)

Does a well-enforced freedom-of-information law lead to more honest government? Intuition says "of course," but a newly released study by a University of Missouri researcher challenges that assumption. Doctoral student Edson C.

Penn State's silence on Clery report shows need for public records reform

(07/16/13 1:08pm)

Last week, the Department of Education issued its preliminary report, part of its investigation into whether Pennsylvania State University violated the Clery Act in its handling of allegations of sexual abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. It will likely be years, though, before the public learns what the department uncovered in its far-reaching review of campus safety practices at the school since 1998 — one of the largest and most high-profile investigations ever. The reason for the secrecy is two-fold. A federal law requires the Department of Education to maintain the confidentiality of any program reviews until the final program report is issued.

"State of the First Amendment" survey finds 1/3 of Americans think the First Amendment goes too far

(07/16/13 4:31pm)

One-third of Americans think the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” the First Amendment Center reported today. Results of a Newseum Institute survey sponsored by the FAC revealed that while 34 percent of Americans think the First Amendment guarantees too many rights, many of those surveyed didn’t have a good grasp on the rights it includes.

Professional journalist speaks out in favor of students as New Jersey school board reconsiders prior review policy

(07/22/13 4:25pm)

Discussion and disagreement over a New Jersey high school’s prior review policy has moved a professional journalist to speak out on behalf of student journalists. Adviser Thomas McHale, who oversaw Hunterdon Central Regional High School’s student newspaper for a decade, resigned in May after school officials started enforcing the district’s prior review policy.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Taking stock of where legislatures broadened -- and narrowed -- public access laws in 2013

(07/23/13 9:41pm)

Summertime means most state legislatures have called it quits for the year, which means it's timely to assess where the public's right of access to meetings and records has advanced and where it has declined. Here are a few examples of newly enacted changes in state open-government laws that journalists should be aware of.

Florida state trooper responsible for University of North Florida newspaper theft

(07/26/13 3:30pm)

Last month, we reported on the theft of thousands of newspapers at the University of North Florida. At the time, editors and police hadn't yet determined who was responsible for the theft, some of which was captured on surveillance video. Now, the paper has learned that a state trooper with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has admitted responsibility for at least some the thefts. According to reports in The Spinnaker, UNF police recognized one of the two men in the video as a highway patrol officer, and contacted Florida Highway Patrol.

Bad taste, bad law: In "Hot for Teacher" case, federal court flunks First Amendment 101

(07/30/13 4:57pm)

By any standard, Joseph Corlett displayed questionable taste in a series of journal entries he submitted for a college writing assignment. Because of that poor judgment, Corlett is receiving little public sympathy after his Michigan college suspended him for making lustful comments about his instructor in a writing assignment. On July 23, a federal district judge found no First Amendment violation in Oakland University's decision to suspend Corlett on a charge of harassment. There is no disputing that Corlett's journal entries -- comparing his English professor to "Gilligan's Island" sex-symbol Ginger and generally "hubba-hubba-ing" over her appearance -- were unbecoming to a married 57-year-old businessman. But the federal court's ruling takes dangerous liberties with the law of the First Amendment.