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.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:13am

    "administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them which meant Schick couldn't search them for keywords"

    That would also eliminate metadata such as IP addresses and sources and routes the emails took.

     

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  2.  
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    Glen, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:17am

    Gotta love the Barbara Streisand effect.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Rich Kulawiec, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:17am

    "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.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:29am

    i love it when a plan comes together!!

     

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  5.  
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    James T, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:38am

    Can't be searched?

    If Google can get any captcha 97% of the time then that same codec can read these articles and provide this searching ability. Failing that the old OCR technology should be able to do the same if it's clear typed out text.

    So it's a hurdle but not by any means a big one.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:39am

    Re:

    I love it when "their" plans fall apart!

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:39am

    Just throw a little "right to be forgotten" at the journalists. "Privacy" advocates will disappear those four soon enough.

     

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  8.  
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    John William Nelson (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:42am

    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).

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:43am

    Re: Can't be searched?

    For the average lay person this is still a hurdle. Just because you know how, does not mean that you should expect others to know how.

    Once someone does learn how easy it is then yea... its not a big hurdle, but still simple does not mean quick.

     

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  10.  
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    James (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:46am

    Re:

    Documents can be rebuilt as searchable text easily.

    This is a burden yes, and could be intentional. It could also be someone who knows that documents contain metadata and is trying to provide these without that attached meta info.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:56am

    Re:

    "those four" -> "those four pages"

     

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  12.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 10:57am

    Re:

    Now why would they try to hide metadata?

     

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  13.  
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    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 11:15am

    Re: Some quick corrections--This is not about UGA

    Thanks for the heads-up. I'll post some corrections.

     

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  14.  
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    gorehound (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 11:20am

    Hope this ends up everywhere.......Streisland always wins.

     

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  15.  
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    Deranged Poster (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 11:32am

    Re:

    And so would a parsing program

     

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  16.  
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    Deranged Poster (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 11:34am

    Re:

    Well except in the original case.

     

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  17.  
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    Coyne Tibbets (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 11:39am

    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.

     

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  18.  
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    That One Guy (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 12:14pm

    Re:

    Come now, why would they bother doing that, as the ever so trustworthy government is constantly assuring people, metadata is completely harmless and couldn't possibly reveal any important or sensitive information.

    /s

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 22nd, 2014 @ 12:20pm

    Re: Can't be searched?

    97% is not good enough for search if it mangles a name into something different, i.e. John/Joan.

     

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  20.  
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    Fred, May 22nd, 2014 @ 12:52pm

    Re: Re: Can't be searched?

    Upload the images to Google Drive and then search it? It doesn't seem that hard these days.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    John William Nelson (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 1:09pm

    Re: Public records exemption coming up

    BIHR:

    "For all Freedom of Information Act requests, there is an exemption from said FOIA requests any and all public records, and said records are further exempted from the First Amendment. But not the Second Amendment. Because we like it if a gun is involved."

     

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  22.  
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    PRMan, May 22nd, 2014 @ 3:02pm

    Re: Re: Re: Can't be searched?

    Not to mention PDF does this now for only the cost of the program.

     

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  23.  
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    PRMan, May 22nd, 2014 @ 3:03pm

    Re: Re: Can't be searched?

    That's why you search it for errors. And most OCR is nearing 99% these days.

     

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  24.  
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    Paul Renault (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 3:56pm

    What's sauce for the goose...

    But then administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them which meant Schick couldn't search them for keywords.

    When Ledar Levinson does this, he's threatened with jail time...

     

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  25.  
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    Coyne Tibbets (profile), May 22nd, 2014 @ 6:18pm

    Put that fire out

    "I'm gonna put out this stupid fire with this gasoline-filled super-soaker. There. Wait. There. Wait. There. There. There. There there theretherethere....haaalp!"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
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    RonKaminsky (profile), May 23rd, 2014 @ 3:19am

    Re: Re:

    Yeah, there are absolutely no privacy concerns about/protections for metadata... the NSA assures us!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Andy Schotz, May 23rd, 2014 @ 5:52am

    You also have Michael Koretzky's name misspelled. He is the Region 3 director for SPJ.

     

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  28.  
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    Thebes, May 23rd, 2014 @ 9:08am

    AG should be fired

    The AG should be fired, not only for his poor understanding of 1st Amendment law and prior restraint- but also for the sheer and clearly demonstrated STUPIDITY of threatening a student journalist on a 1st Amendment issue!!

    The result of that gaff was entirely predictable!!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
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    JimminyCrickets, Jun 12th, 2014 @ 4:53pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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