By Meg Heckman
Would stronger sunshine laws have prevented some of the sexual abuse at Penn State? Longtime journalist Al Tompkins thinks so. He explored the question in a column earlier this month, explaining why Penn State was able to keep many documents secret and why it matters.
Tompkins writes: “Despite being supported by tax dollars, Penn State University is not subject to the state’s open records laws. Penn State’s records, including police records, e-mail, phone records, calendars and memos, are closed…
“The abuse at Penn State is a lesson to us all about what happens when powerful people and public institutions are allowed to operate in the shadows created by what [independent investigator Louis] Freeh called a ‘closed culture.’ It is a culture that protected abusers, failed to protect victims and survived by closing its records to journalists who might have exposed it.”
Tompkins’s column is a reminder that strong sunshine laws have the potential to do good far beyond the walls of city hall. It also prompted us to to find out if public colleges and universities in New England are subject to open records requests.
The answer is, for the most part, yes. Right-to-know laws in all six New England states pertain to public schools, although certain types of documents – student academic records, personnel files and some testing materials — are exempt. Colleges and universities are also generally allowed to keep private some details about research projects or, in the case of medical schools, clinical trials.
Most other records should generally be available, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to convince a school to comply with the law. Burlington Free Press reporter Mike Donoghue recalls a protracted and expensive fight over documents related to a hazing investigation involving the university of Vermont’s men’s hockey team.
The case started in the fall of 1999 when a freshman goalie complained to administrators about hazing at a pre-season party. There was a federal lawsuit, allegations of a cover up and, eventually, a midseason suspension for the entire team. (This USA Today story includes a timeline of the case.)
After breaking the story, Donoghue says the Free Press took UVM to court to obtain school records related to the investigation. A judge ordered the release of many documents and, in part because of the Free Press’s investigation, Vermont’s hazing laws were changed to better protect players.
“The judge gave us 13 out of 19 categories that he established,” Donoghue said in an email. “The whole case blew up.”
A more recent success story involves the University of Rhode Island and its often tense relationship with the nonprofit Institute for International Sport. Earlier this year, the Associated Press obtained documents from URI that revealed the institute’s questionable financial practices. A separate records request by the Providence Journal turned up a memo that showed a former university president had inappropriately approved a tuition waiver for an employee of the institute.
Meg Heckman is online editor of the Concord (NH) Monitor.
Editor’s Note: This blog post first appeared at the New England First Amendment Center, a partnership between the New England First Amendment Coalition and Northeastern University in Boston.