Last year, student journalists at the University of Maryland conducted a public records audit to learn more about the social media regulations governing student-athletes at public universities. The students asked for codes of conduct for athletic departments and teams, and for a slew of other documents pertaining to social media use: blank copies of agreements that student-athletes must sign, forms that ask for usernames and passwords, scholarship packets referencing social media, among others.
The results of the audit by students at UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism are being published this week in connection with Sunshine Week, an annual event that promotes government transparency.
“For the most part, schools were very responsive” — with a few exceptions, said Scott Zlotnick, a senior broadcast journalism major at Maryland. Zlotnick was a teaching assistant in one of the classes that sent out requests.
The requests ask for 11 documents. Nobody got all the documents they requested, Zlotnick said. In many cases, some of the records the students asked for did not exist. In a few cases though, schools didn’t respond to requests and students were unable to determine whether the records existed or not.
“The hardest was North Carolina — they just refused to give anything up,” Zlotnick said. “So was the University of Delaware … which was kind of surprising. You’d think a smaller school would be more prone to open up.”
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than five months after receiving a request from a student, has yet to release any records. Officials haven’t hinted when they might.
Melissa Katz, a junior broadcast journalism major at Maryland, said her request to UNC was acknowledged the same day she submitted it, but the university’s responsiveness halted almost completely after that.
Katz followed up her request with emails and phone calls to several administrators at least every other week up until the project’s conclusion in December 2013, she said. Under North Carolina statutes, public agencies do not have to process records requests in a specific timeframe, although the law says they must fulfill requests “as promptly as possible.”
“They were continuously telling me that they didn’t have a timetable,” Katz said. “They pretty much hid behind that.”
Katz only received responses from officials a handful of times — a variation of the same acknowledgment.
“Thank you for inquiring about the status of your request,” wrote Zach Orth, a public records specialist for the university, in one email. “Although we are not able to provide you with a timeline for when you could expect to receive responsive public record documentation, when we are able to provide such documentation to you we will be back in-touch.”
The University of Delaware, too, didn’t release anything, citing an exemption under the state’s law that defines only “documents relating to the expenditure of public funds” as public records.
“Because the information you seek does not relate to the expenditure of public funds, the University respectfully declines your request,” wrote Lori Hill, certified paralegal in the university’s Office of General Counsel, in an email Oct. 2.
Jasmine Song, the Maryland journalism student who requested the information, followed up after the denial, arguing that while the law doesn’t mandate the disclosure, it also doesn’t bar the release of records, and that the issue at hand was one of public interest. She asked the university to voluntarily release the records.
“I appreciate your persistence and premise, however, the University will not be providing the records voluntarily,” Hill wrote to Song on Nov. 8.
Zlotnick said UNC and Delaware represent the audit’s two worst-case scenarios. But students in the class encountered other problem schools in addition to those two universities.
The University of Central Florida denied a request for the records, saying they belonged to a “direct support organization,” which are largely exempt under Florida’s public records law.
Andy Seeley, a spokesman for the University of Central Florida Athletics, said in an interview that the entire athletic department falls under the scope of this direct-support organization.
In 2013, however, a Florida appeals court found that the UCF Athletics Association was “wholly controlled by and intertwined with UCF, in that UCF created it, funded it and can dissolve it, in addition to oversee its day-to-day operations,” according to the court opinion. In that case, where the family of a dead football player sued the athletics association for negligence and were awarded $10 million in damages, the appeals court extended sovereign immunity — which is offered only to government bodies — to the group. It’s not clear what the impact of the ruling would be in terms of the association’s obligation under the state’s public records law.
At Clemson, an administrator claimed email troubles were the culprit behind the school’s failure to address a records request.
“Let me check my records. I recall sending the information,” wrote Teri Townsend, assistant to the athletic director, in an email to student Joe Marshall on Nov. 5, 18 work days after Marshall submitted his request. “However, we did experience some email delivery issues lately so it could have gotten caught up in that.”
Townsend then claimed she had no record of his request, but Marshall provided records to the Student Press Law Center showing that he did submit a request via email to Townsend on Oct. 11. South Carolina law requires agencies to respond within 15 work days.
One of the major difficulties students encountered were delays by schools in states where the public records law doesn’t establish hard deadlines for which an agency must respond to a request. One of those states is Minnesota, where the University of Minnesota took 38 days to acknowledge the receipt of a request, according to the final report journalism student Marissa Parra submitted.
Parra wrote that she submitted a request Sept. 30 to Susan McKinney, the records manager at the University of Minnesota. Six days later, Parra called three times and left a voicemail to follow up on her request. On Oct. 10, Parra reported that someone from the University of Minnesota had viewed her LinkedIn profile, but nobody had yet contacted her about her about the public-records request.
“I found that significant because I hadn’t heard anything back from him,” Parra said. “I hadn’t heard anything back but somehow … they found my investigation interesting enough to look me up on social media.”
Finally, on Nov. 6, Parra said she once again called McKinney, who answered and told Parra that she should have received an email a few weeks prior. Parra then told McKinney she had not received anything.
The following day, the university released some requested documents to Parra via email. When she tried to follow up about unreleased information — specifically additional documentation outlining team-particular social media practices — with a phone call four days later, she received no response, according to the correspondence log. On Nov. 20, she again reached McKinney who told Parra there were no additional responsive documents. She initially trusted this response.
“I’m getting all my information ready, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to check one last time,’ ” Parra said. “I had the feeling that there was something more to be discovered.”
Unsatisfied, Parra contacted individual coaches and other administrators. Eventually, she found that the football team does have a specific social media policy, which warns football players that administrators will monitor student-athlete accounts on a “daily basis.”
“I have learned through this experience, firsthand, not to trust what anyone says,” Parra said. “I believed them when they told me it didn’t exist.”
Some of the students also encountered difficulties with high costs. Nearly every school provided the records free of charge, but a few charged students — some substantially. The University of Michigan said it would cost $1,480 to provide responsive records. The University of Louisville declined to waive its 10 cent per page charge, forcing the student to narrow her request. Florida International University estimated costs at $69.04.
In each case, the students turned to unofficial channels because the costs were outside of the class’ budget. Students were able to find some of the documents online, and also conducted interviews with coaches and athletics department staff, some of whom provided records voluntarily. The students were able to receive some, but not all of the documents they sought.
David Cuillier, director of University of Arizona’s journalism school and president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the problems these students experienced are not at all uncommon.
In Cuillier’s experience, students and other inexperienced requesters are more often brushed to the side by agencies.
“Denials, delays and hassles are common throughout the country, unfortunately,” Cuillier said. “But the deck is stacked against the citizens, particularly the students.”
It’s a “common, well-known fact,” especially by universities, to delay releasing records in hopes that students will simply give up after a semester. Cuillier called the University of North Carolina’s handling of the records request “terrible” and “outrageous.”
“I don’t know if that’s UNC’s intent here, but it’s really outrageous, that kind of delay,” Cuillier said. “Does UNC really want to be an outlier? Does UNC want to be seen that way?”
Cuillier said open-records laws have been slowly “eviscerated” over the last several decades since most of them were implemented after Watergate.
“I think every state should have some kind of ombudsman to hold agencies accountable,” Cuillier said. “A student can’t afford to sue. What are they going to do, sell their mountain bike and live on Top Ramen? We need to have an advocate for the people to balance the equation a little bit.”
Editor’s note: Journalism students at the University of Maryland, led by associate professor Deborah Nelson and professor Sandra Banisky, conducted the public records audit in the fall of 2013 and shared the results with the Student Press Law Center.