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An intriguing debate is simmering in news-industry circles as to whether it's a legitimate journalistic function to publicly distribute a database of government employee salaries, or just an invitation to voyeurism.
Oh, it's so hard not to enjoy this. So let's not even try.
For years, school boards and their lawyers have been telling journalists and parents that just about any piece of substantive information they might need is top-secret under federal privacy law and exempt from state public-records statutes.
Trends in discipline, statistics about school violence -- you name it, some enterprising school attorney can figure out how to squeeze it into the "black box" that is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Even if there is no legitimate privacy interest at stake, and a compelling public interest in disclosure.
Given the spiral of FERPA abuse, it was inevitable that schools would become so secretive that they'd start concealing information even from themselves.
Welcome to Cherokee County, Georgia, which is facing the prospect that a fledgling charter school could face legal action under the Georgia Open Records Act for withholding a roster of its currently enrolled students...
From its own school board.
You read that right.
People often wonder why the typical public-records request is so convoluted and full of legalese -- instead of asking for "documents," a request generally will ask for something like: "All letters, memos, audiotapes, videotapes, transcripts, emails, calendar entries..." and so on until the thesaurus has been exhausted.
The reason is that, if you don't nail down all of the possibilities, a sharp-eyed government lawyer may spot the one tiny omission in your request and respond with a denial that is ultra-literally true but substantively unhelpful (i.e., "Well, we have time sheets, but we don't have any time cards").
To illustrate, consider the case of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, which was asked under Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law to produce the payroll records of a roofing company that was paid for repair work on a campus building.
This is a story about risky wieners that has nothing to do with tweeting New York congressmen.
Nebraska's Journal-Star newspaper recently looked into who was making sure the hot dogs served at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Coliseum were safe to eat.
NCAA Division I football players are among the world's most finely conditioned athletes, capable of bench-pressing a quarter of a ton, dashing 40 yards in less than 4.5 seconds, and leaping nearly four feet in the air from a standing start.
Signaling for left turns?
When a government agency, including a state college or a school district, goes into the market for anything from legal services to canned tomatoes, ethics laws normally require shopping around.
At least since "don't tase me, Bro" entered the national vocabulary as a T-shirt slogan and late-night punchline, the public has been fascinated by how university police use force in dealing with unruly but unthreatening members of the campus community.
When working the campus police beat, journalists should make an at-least-annual public-records check for citizen complaints alleging unprofessional conduct by police, to see how many complaints are occurring and how they are being resolved.
Public access to police complaint records was spotlighted by a recent state Supreme Court decision, allowing a lower court's ruling to stand, that the New Mexico sunshine law requires disclosure of citizen complaint files.
In August 2010, the state Court of Appeals decided that the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act does cover records of complaints filed against officers of the state Department of Public Safety.
Consumers avidly price-shop for the most expensive purchase in their lives (houses) and the third-most expensive purchase in their lives (cars) -- but when it comes to the second-most expensive purchase, emotions ("Whoa, is that a rock-climbing wall?") sometimes override dollars-and-cents.
Skeptics who question the conclusions of scientific studies have discovered a powerful tool in state open-records laws.
The lobbying groups representing school board members, superintendents and principals exert enormous influence over education policy.
Auditors are just like reporters, only with better salaries and MUCH better access. They spend their days picking through government agencies' spending for signs that programs are working ineffectively or that money is being spent wastefully.
Two college journalists at West Virginia's Marshall University have won the Society of Professional Journalists' prestigious "Sunshine Award" for exposing the existence of an off-the-books set of campus police reports separate from the ones made available for public review.
The SPJ will recognize Samantha Turley and Marcus Constantino for a series of October 2010 stories in their campus newspaper, The Parthenon, documenting that the Marshall University Police Department selectively withheld some crime reports from a log provided to student journalists.
The existence of "off-the-books crimes" came to light as journalists from The Parthenon inquired into widespread rumors about a sexual assault in a campus dorm (a complaint that police ultimately decided they lacked the evidence to pursue). Any report to police of a serious crime such as rape should show up in the daily crime log available for public inspection, but the log provided to The Parthenon made no mention of it.
Turley and Constantino will receive their award at SPJ's national convention Sept.
One of the under-appreciated secrets to being a master public-records reporter is figuring out exactly what types of statistics government agencies keep.
Campus police often are secretive with information, but there are times when public records are a matter of life and death.
Student activity fees can be like those last-minute mystery charges tacked onto the bottom line when you're buying a new car.
People enjoy bashing lawyers for the handsome hourly rates they charge, and stories about how much government agencies spend on legal fees can give the lawyer-bashers endless hours of "$250 an hour for WHAT?" enjoyment.
At least once a decade, virtually every degree-granting college -- public or private -- goes through the equivalent of a full-body MRI scan: Accreditation by a regional nonprofit inspection team.
It's college football season again, and the start of competition should also be the kickoff for sports journalists to start asking questions about the business side of major college sports.
In Arizona, the Fiesta Bowl -- one of four major bowls that alternate hosting college football's Division I national championship -- is facing tough questions about its finances thanks to some aggressive public-records crunching by the Arizona Republic newspaper.
Bowl organizers already were under scrutiny by Arizona's attorney general, who is looking at whether the bowl's organizing committee broke any laws by spending money on expensive gifts and entertainment for VIP's and on campaign contributions.
New Jersey's Supreme Court has struck a decisive blow for the transparency of government spending, ruling that lobbying groups created by government agencies cannot hide behind their "private" corporate status to conceal their records.
From Boise to Sioux Falls, student-run college radio stations are going on the auction block, a casualty of tight campus budgets that at times is rationalized by reference to declining listenership and the availability of online-only broadcasting alternatives.
If your college radio station gets sold without advance warning -- especially if you are at a state institution that must obey public-records laws -- then it's time to go into document-gathering mode.
First, find out whether your state has a law governing colleges and universities that requires competitive bidding before valuable state assets, such as the license and equipment of a radio station, are sold.