Note: This story is written as a first-person narration of a reporter’s investigation into Ohio University’s compliance with the state of Ohio Sun Laws to which she is bound. The reporter felt that as a student at Ohio University, writing the story this way would be the most honest. This includes their perspective as an investigator.
As a student entering his third year of journalism studies at Ohio University, I am no stranger to the request for public records. The journalism courses offered by the university require me to practice my data collection skills in requesting public records from government and public bodies and to understand the history and importance of open records, not only as a journalist, but as an American citizen.
Became law in 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guaranteed the public’s legal right to access records generated by federal agencies. In the aftermath, many states passed laws requiring transparency from state, local and public agencies. Today, all states have passed these laws. Known as the Sunshine Laws, these laws promote transparency by ensuring public access, and therefore public scrutiny, to records and public meetings.
As a state-supported university, Ohio U is subject to Ohio Sunshine Laws. Due to the ambiguous nature of these laws, as well as my own experiences with problems requesting records from the university, I was curious to see how long the university took to respond to requests.
The public access granted by the Sunshine Laws varies from state to state. While some states’ laws closely mirror the federal FOIA, others have broader laws that allow agencies more flexibility. Ohio is one of those states.
“One of the great things about Ohio’s sun laws is that it’s pretty vague about how long an agency has to comply with a FOIA request,” said Dr. Aimee Edmondson, author and professor of media law and history of journalism at Ohio University, in a telephone interview.
The 2022 Sunshine Law Handbook, which is updated annually by Ohio Attorney General David Yost’s Public Records Unit, states, “There is no fixed, predetermined time frame for responding to a public records request. Instead, the requirement to provide “prompt” production of records for inspection has been interpreted by the courts as “promptly” and “within a reasonable time”.
The FOIA differs from this state law in that it requires federal agencies to respond to a request within 20 business days, except in “unusual circumstances.”
The manual adds that the definition of “prompt” may vary on a case-by-case basis. Examples of when this may occur are, but are not limited to, if a request needs to be clarified or revised by the requestor, if information needs to be located or compiled, or if information needs to be reviewed for redaction.
“The problem with Ohio law, and any law that doesn’t give a specific time frame, is that there is no time limit,” Edmondson said.
However, Edmondson noted that she found many agencies with specific deadlines that tend to wait until the last possible date to deliver.
“Well, if you think about it, what’s 20 (working) days? It’s a month,” Edmondson said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, there’s no emergency at all, it just takes a month to comply’, and for me, a month is too long.”
Edmondson added that one of the main disadvantages of Ohio’s broad sun laws is that because there is no deadline, there is more liability for applicants to become “professional naggers”. .
Ohio U Media Relations Manager Jim Sabin said in an email that “Ohio University strives to be transparent with the public it serves, as evidenced by our rating of the highest achievement in the Open and Transparent Government Award from the Ohio Auditor of State’s StaRS Rating Program in March 2021.”
To test the university’s compliance, I sent a request to legal administrative assistant Shelly Bean, the university’s point of contact for public records requests.
On March 1, I requested documents containing all document requests sent to the university from 2019 to 2022, including the dates the requests were made, the current status of the requests, the summaries of the requests and, the where applicable, the dates on which the applications were closed.
In a phone call with Bean, I was informed that the system used by the university to track requests for public records changed in May 2019 and therefore there was no past data available. Bean also stated that if I were to request the names and affiliations of those who had requested records, I would not receive the data I was hoping for in a timely manner, as the names would have to be reviewed to ensure that all Necessary redactions were made. Already, I started badly.
Seeing the information for the first time, I immediately noticed that many requests that had not yet been met were incredibly old. As of March 21, 2022, when I received the data, Ohio U’s oldest active application was 1,369 days old, or approximately three years and nine months. A very short but intriguing summary of the request reads: “Final Results/Disciplinary Hearings”.
It’s not the only request that has patiently sat in an Excel sheet, waiting to be finally fulfilled. Nearly 38% of Ohio U’s 58 active requests took 100 days or more to process. All active requests have been active for at least 20 days.
However, to assemble a proper and fair survey, I requested the same data from Ohio State University. Immediately I started noticing differences in compliance. I received the dataset in 12 days. Furthermore, even though I had specified that I would not require the names and affiliations of the applicants for reasons of time, I was given the information anyway.
From there, the differences continued to be huge. Only about 13% of Ohio State’s 39 active claims have been active for at least 100 days. About 72% of these requests have been active for 20 days or more. While I felt the university could continue to improve its compliance with the law, it was significantly better than Ohio U.
Going through the closed application lists of both universities, I noticed a similar pattern. Nearly 52% of requests Ohio U has received and fulfilled since 2019 took longer than 20 days to fulfill, and about 14% took longer than 100 days. In Ohio State, those percentages are only about 34% and 6%, respectively.
These statistics seem to reflect part of a larger problem that occurs with all public access laws, which Edmondson pointed out: “There is no teeth in the law.
In most states, including Ohio, as well as at the federal level, if an agency does not comply, there is no penalty. Those who come face to face with an agency that refuses to comply have the option of suing, however, it costs money and time – resources that a plaintiff may not have.
As a university nationally recognized for the quality of its journalism school, this conformity, or rather the lack thereof, is troubling. Students, like me, trying to develop their skills come up against a reluctant university that prefers to take it slow.
Those working on stories for classes, student publications, or on their own time are forced to choose between putting extra time into their already busy schedules or giving up. Deadlines, graduation, end of the school year, and relevance of information after time are additional factors for students to consider. I wonder: is the university taking advantage of us?
“There are too many instances where I see (Ohio University) taking way too long,” Edmondson said. “And then again, I’m afraid they’re taking advantage of student journalists because they feel like they can. It’s disrespectful and it’s against the law. »
To view an interactive visualization of the data being compared in this story, click here.