State open records laws limit information available to journalists

Student journalists across the country face repeated roadblocks in their efforts to navigate some state’s open records laws and uncover the facts, but few have the resources to fight in court.

The recent scandal at Pennsylvania State University, where assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation, brought attention to the state’s Right to Know Law and its limitations. State legislators have considered proposals to alter the law, but no action has been taken.

Media law experts have voiced concerns about the lack of a strong public records law in the state.

“Pennsylvania has one of the worst open records acts in the country,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. He said according to the law, almost nothing is obtainable.

LoMonte pointed to the recent UNC records case as a victory for student journalists.

The University agreed to a settlement with The Daily Tar Heel and seven other media outlets after a two-year lawsuit involving UNC student records and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The DTH received transcripts of NCAA interviews with UNC football players.

But LoMonte said the process is not always this successful.

“The unfortunate reality is almost no journalist has the money or the time to take one of these public records fights through the years of trials and appeals,” he said.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the Right to Know Law generally covers state agencies. Penn State is only required to disclose an annual tax return and the salaries of the 25 highest-paid employees.

She added that Penn State is considered a “state-related” university and is not required to comply with the law. When it was drafted in 2007, former Penn State president Graham Spanier lobbied against the university being covered by the law.

“One of his big issues was the ability to stay competitive against similarly situated universities with regard to recruiting faculty and administration,” Melewsky said.

“I think in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal coming to light, Penn State voluntarily released some information, but the law didn’t require them to do so.”

LoMonte said he receives calls once a week from journalists struggling to access records.

“We’ve found that athletic department scandals are probably the single biggest sources of conflict between student journalists and their colleges,” he said.

Melewsky said schools are anxious to use the FERPA objection because of the fear of losing federal funding.

“I think because the consequences for violating FERPA are so serious, schools tend to interpret it too broadly in an abundance of caution,” she said.

Cathy Packer, co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, said FERPA was designed to protect the privacy of education records but is not always used appropriately.

“We know nationwide that sometimes universities have used FERPA to cover up what’s going on on-campus,” she said.

She said there are often minor violations of the law, but no serious consequences have ever resulted.

She added that the North Carolina public records law is strong and has aided in many badly needed changes in government — and it’s unfortunate that more could not have been prevented in Pennsylvania.

“I think that a public records law is a beautiful thing, and it’s too bad for the people of Pennsylvania that Penn State was exempt from the law,” she said.

Contact the desk editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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