By Will Drabold and Danielle Keeton-Olsen
At Ohio’s public universities, nearly half of employees who were asked for public records failed to follow state law, according to results of a public records audit conducted by student journalists.
In January, student journalists across Ohio requested the same five public records at 12 of Ohio’s 14 public universities. They asked front desk employees for records and did not identify themselves. State law does not require those who request records to identify themselves.
Of the 60 total requests auditors made across the campuses, school employees followed the law for 34. The vast majority of those requests were directed to universities’ legal offices without immediately providing the records, a technically legal response. Records were provided in only seven instances.
The remaining 26 requests were denied or obstructed, meaning university employees asked auditors to identify themselves or otherwise made it difficult to obtain a public record.
In direct violation of state law, nearly half of auditors were asked to identify themselves. Some were directed to legal offices after refusing to identify themselves; others were entirely blocked from access to public records. In 2014, The Columbus Dispatch successfully requested one record from most Ohio public universities: the names of students who committed violent crimes. But two years later, in this audit, three-quarters of audited Ohio public universities denied or obstructed a request for that same record.
Students at Kent State University did not comply with audit guidelines, so their results were voided. Northeastern Ohio Medical University was not audited because it is substantially different from other public universities.
“The results show that state university officials have some work to do to ensure they readily comply with open records laws,” Dennis Hetzel said, president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association. “I was particularly distressed to see so many requests obstructed by asking the requestors to identify themselves. That’s clearly against the law.”
Spokespeople at the offices of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, both of whom have units dedicated to open government and public records, declined to comment on the results of the audit.
To view a detailed methodology, results from each campus and more about the public records audit of Ohio’s public universities, visit OhioAudit.org.
Obstruction and denial
At Miami University and Cleveland State University, all requests were either obstructed or denied. Central State University was the only institution that was fully compliant, directing all requests to its legal department. No university provided all records that were requested.
The Jambar asked for five records from YSU as a part of the Ohio Universities Public Records Audit. Of the five records requested, The Jambar received two.
In one of the most severe interactions in the state, an auditor at OU was reportedly told “nothing in our office is public” by two administrators when she requested the names of students who committed a violent crime. The auditor said she was told the records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, more commonly known as FERPA.
“Given that there has been extensive nationwide publicity to the need for greater transparency in how colleges handle sexual assault, the fact that university employees … are incorrectly citing (FERPA) to conceal violent crimes is simply inexcusable,” Frank LoMonte said, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that protects the First Amendment rights of student journalists. “These laws need real teeth and real consequences for noncompliance.”
Not all universities, or units within each university, responded illegally to requests.
At Shawnee State University, the Athletics office promptly fulfilled a request through email shortly after it was requested. At Bowling Green State University, the President’s office directed the auditor to the Office of General Counsel as per the university’s policy.
But overall, a large number of auditors ran into roadblocks to receive simple records and some legal experts questioned the trend toward directing auditors to legal offices.
“[That] seems inefficient, and frankly, can be rather intimidating to many people who are not trained journalists,” Aimee Edmondson, associate professor of journalism at OU and a media law scholar, said. “ I’m not sure you need a lawyer to fill all requests. In terms of time management, it’s the most expensive way to comply with the law.”
Call for training
This audit’s results stand in sharp contrast to a 2014 audit of Ohio’s cities, counties and school districts. That project found roughly 90 percent compliance among public employees, an improvement over a decade ago.
This audit’s results were an improvement over a similar audit of Ohio’s public universities a decade ago. Then, public officials were compliant only 41 percent of the time — about 15 percent lower than this year’s audit results.
Sean FitzGerald, general counsel at Bowling Green State University, said his university should provide more public records training. But he added an employee that did not comply with the law was not necessarily trying to hide something.
“In this instance, it’s not a matter of a lack of transparency so much as it is individuals in operating units not adequately directing a requester to the General Counsel’s office,” FitzGerald said.
LoMonte, Edmondson and Hetzel echoed the need for more training.
“The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has excellent training on public records,” Hetzel, the Ohio open government leader, said. “These schools should assess if refreshers are needed, especially at Miami University and Cleveland State, where auditors reported all requests were obstructed.”
Patricia Newberry, a senior lecturer of journalism at Miami University and director of the Society of Professional Journalists region that includes Ohio, hailed the collaboration of student journalists through the audit. She said it is important for student journalists to keep the pressure on university administrators to comply with open records laws.
“Across the state, we have inconsistent (student) media pushing on university leadership,” she said. “Some students newspapers push hard to get officials to abide by the law. And others don’t. They ignore that as a means for deeper reporting.”
Will Drabold and Danielle Keeton-Olsen are students at Ohio University. They coordinated the public records audit of Ohio’s public universities. For more information, please visit OhioAudit.org. To contact them, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.