State AG Tries To Order Removal Of Public Records From Journalist's Blog, Resulting In Records Being Posted Everywhere

from the my-god...-it's-full-of-files dept

Georgia state Attorney General Sam Olens recently decided to play hardball with a journalism student who published certain documents at the Society for Professional Journalists blog network. Needless to say, it backfired. (via Jim Romenesko)

First off, University of Georgia student David Schick made a public records request for documents concerning names of candidates for his university’s president, as part of an investigation into the school’s Georgia Perimeter College’s $16 million budget shortfall. According to Schick, the obfuscation began there. The published part Olens objected to is only four of the 700 pages Schick ended up with — but he had to fight hard to get anything at all.

First, the school charged him $2,963 to forward him emails. When he got a volunteer lawyer who threatened to sue, the price tag was knocked down to $291. But then administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them – which meant Schick couldn’t search them for keywords.

Schick is still awaiting a decision for his lawsuit brought against the Georgia Board of Regents University System of Georgia for “failing to produce public records.” In the meantime, he published what he has acquired, which drew the attention of the State AG.

According to Olens, the information (which was released as part of a public records request) wasn’t supposed to be made public.

“The four pages of documents,” says the motion Olens’ office filed last Wednesday, “contain the names of a number of individuals who applied for the position of president at one of the Board of Regents’ colleges or universities. None of these individuals was selected as a finalist for the position for which they applied.”

So, rather than deal with the entity which (allegedly) “improperly released” the information to the student, Olens went after the student instead, using a little attempted prior restraint. News of this bullying behavior spread quickly — as did the offending documents themselves.

Michael Koretksky, another blogger for the SPJ, posted 21 pages (including the four Olens was seeking to take down) at his blog and encouraged others to do the same. Many others did, including the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, David Cuillier.

Olens says the names should not have been released, so the student must take them down. Sorry, Mr. AG, but you can’t do that. There’s something called case law (e.g., Pentagon Papers), and we in America don’t care much for prior restraint (or post restraint, for that matter).

Also, the idea that candidates for university president should be secret is silly, and unfortunately more states are incorporating this exemption into their public record laws. A shame when it involves something so important. We need to push back against efforts to make that process hidden from public view.

With the documents being quickly spread around the internet, Olens either realized a) fighting this would require all-day sessions at the courthouse or b) he looked completely, ridiculously thuggish because he has decided to withdraw his legally unsupportable request.

There’s nothing like a little bad publicity to make would-be censors rethink their tactics. Obviously, the Board of Regents University System of Georgia needs to have a little more thrown its way considering its own uncooperativeness during this process. Maybe the lawsuit will provide the extra push it needs to stop treating members of the public with such complete disdain. The fact that it would take the time to print out and rescan documents simply to prevent them from being searchable indicates that its public records response team completely resents transparency — much like so many other entities at all levels of government.

Filed Under: , , , , ,
Companies: society for professional journalists

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “State AG Tries To Order Removal Of Public Records From Journalist's Blog, Resulting In Records Being Posted Everywhere”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

“First, the school charged him $2,963 to forward him emails. When he got a volunteer lawyer who threatened to sue, the price tag was knocked down to $291. But then administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them ? which meant Schick couldn’t search them for keywords.”

This form of deliberate obfuscation has been increasingly used to bury journalists and the public in a pile of unsearchable, unusable paperwork — it’s an obvious ploy to hand over the requested information but to make it too unwieldy to process.

Email gets stored in various formats (depending on what kind of mail system is in use) but most of those are interconvertable via open-source tools. The lingua franca that most of us use is “Unix mbox format”, which has been around for decades. It’s simple, it’s supported by every sensible mail client on the planet, and there exist a plethora of tools to deal with it. (For example, grepmail, which is something everyone who deals with email should have in their toolkit. grepmail makes searching enormous mail archives easy.)

Anyway, my point here is that a simple process like “convert all email to mbox format, search it for relevant/matching messages, extract those, hand them over in mbox format on a USB stick/CD/whatever” should be straightforward, fast, and cheap. If it’s not: then either the people doing it are technically incompetent or — more likely in this case — they’re deliberately stonewalling.

John William Nelson (profile) says:

Some quick corrections--This is not about UGA

The University System of Georgia is being sued, not the University of Georgia.

The University System of Georgia oversees a number of universities in Georgia, including UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Valdosta State University, Kennesaw State University, and the university/college whose records are at issue in this matter: Georgia Perimeter College. (I grew up within walking distance of the GPC main campus, which was then called DeKalb College.)

UGA does not have a budget shortfall. However, mismanagement, possible corruption, possible theft, and possible fraud has left GPC with a significant budget shortfall. An investigation into this is still ongoing to the best of my knowledge.

In short:
1. The University System of Georgia is being sued;
2. The records pertained to Georgia Perimeter College (GPC);
3. The records did not pertain to the University of Georgia;
4. Sam Olens can be ridiculous in his court pleadings (which is me editorializing).

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Public records exemption coming up

Whoa! Guess the state is going to have to pass a public records exemption to prevent these university president hunts from being disclosed in the future.

Expect a call for a special session next week.

It is truly amazing how everything a government can do these days is too dangerous or private to be exposed to the public eye.

JimminyCrickets says:

Disagree on one point

While I agree with the overall perspective of this report and the clear conclusion that Olens’ intervention was an unmitigated blunder, I do disagree on one key point. There is a reason that the Georgia Open Records Act allows public education entities to withhold the names of applicants/candidates for the top administrative position at those entities (until such time as the entity narrows the selection process to three finalists, which they never do, instead just naming a single finalist, intentionally, to avoid disclosing all of the names). The reason is one of common sense. Everyone should be entitled to confidentiality when they apply for a job. In most cases, one would not want his/her current employer to know he/she is applying for a job somewhere else, and I expect that would include everyone commenting here. If there were an expectation that one’s name would be disclosed when applying for the top position at a public education entity, even if not selected for that position, it would have a significant limiting effect on the applicant pool. I agree with this exemption in the records law. The law also is clear that once a single finalist is named, the hiring authority cannot vote to make the decision final until 14 days have passed. Sounds reasonable to me. That said, Olens should have known better than to do what he did. The Open Records Act is also clear that just because certain exemptions exist, they do not require the agency to withhold the records. The exemptions only allow the agency to withhold certain records. If the records are released anyway, then that was the agency’s choice. Too bad.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...