How many students would like to know if UT administrators are fibbing when they cite an internal study or committee recommendation on University efficiency? How many more are curious about the internal deliberations behind a University scandal?
Because UT is a public institution, a mechanism exists to gain access to undisclosed University information, such as the specifics of the school’s budget or emails regarding a particular University issue. That mechanism is the Texas Open Records Act. By submitting a record request, any member of the public, not just journalists, can access unpublicized information regarding how our government runs. However, as we’ve seen in the past month during the impeachment proceedings of UT System Regent Wallace Hall, which were brought about by lawmakers concerned over Hall’s excessive records requests to UT-Austin, an open records request can cause a lot of trouble — and not always the productive kind.
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, based at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., spoke about government transparency and accountability at the 11th annual Austin Forum for Journalism in the Americas, an annual symposium that invites journalists to discuss issues facing the press. The event was put on by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, where I am a volunteer.
Blanton’s talk addressed the challenges of filing open records requests at the federal level, which are known as Freedom of Information Act Requests, or FOIAs.
Blanton said these requests require a great deal of patience and resources. This presents a complication: While any citizen can file the requests, those best equipped for success are those who have the resources and patience willing to fight for the information. Blanton’s main recommendation? File multiple requests at once, the same sort of tactic that got Wallace Hall in so much trouble.
Blanton also suggested that news services organize “FOIA Fridays,” in which journalists submit some type of relevant request every week. This gadfly mentality allows a constant flow of requests in the pipeline to adjust for slow response times and failed or blocked requests.
In Texas, the Open Records Act requires that the entity holding the information issue a response within 10 days of receiving the request. Requests are generally appealed to the state attorney general, making the petitioner wait another 45 days until the final ruling. If the ruling is negative, the petitioner may decide to sue for the information in court.
While the idea of getting one’s hands on some blockbuster government documents may seem empowering, the process doesn’t always yield useful information. Time and effort are required to yield valuable documents. Furthermore, public information requests aren’t all that useful if the petitioner does not know what they are searching for or if the request is too large to be adequately handled. Requests for information that, if disclosed, would violate patient or student confidentiality agreements are also troublesome, as they may produce documents that are so blacked-out as to be unreadable. One of the many charges against Hall is that he unlawfully shared files received through an open records request which contained protected student information.
Filers of open records requests should never forget that frivolous requests waste time and taxpayer dollars. You may have a legal privilege to request copies of every email Mack Brown has sent in the past year containing the words “lunch break,” but that doesn’t mean you should make everyone in his office spend two weeks compiling them for you.
At the end of the day, the public has a responsibility to pursue information we think is relevant to informing the public at large. As citizens and students at a public university, we should be more proactive in using the rights we have at our disposal.
But if we have this useful tool for government transparency, we also have the responsibility to be selective and specific about the information we request. If we take nothing else away from the investigation of Hall by the House Transparency committee, we’ve at least seen the consequences of abusing records requests. Hall’s needless request for over 800,000 documents from UT-Austin, in which he asked that the University turn over even post-it notes from President William Power Jr.’s office, have caught up the UT system leadership for months in a distracting discussion that has little to do with actual higher education policy — without producing any of the valuable information open records requests are supposed to help uncover.
I’m against “FOIA Fridays” for their own sake. Nevertheless, the next time there is a big scandal or burning question, students shouldn’t just complain about the university bureaucracy. Consider using records requests to hold the university accountable.
Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.