As part of the Ohio Universities Public Records Audit conducted in January by students from seven of the state’s universities, The Lantern asked Ohio State for five records. Of these requests, one was granted, three were referred to legal affairs and one was obstructed when the auditor was asked to identify himself.
OSU spokesman Chris Davey said he thinks the university did “fairly well” in responding to the auditors’ requests.
“We do a high volume of public records at Ohio State, both in the central (public records) office as well as out in the units around the university,” he said. “It’s helpful to have projects like this come along and give us the opportunity to examine our processes and … to continually improve them.”
Of the records requested by The Lantern, the one that was obstructed asked for the names of students found responsible for a violent crime during the 2014-15 academic year. The auditor was asked to provide contact information because the person with access to these records was not in the office at that time.
Although the Ohio Public Records Law states that requesters are not required to provide identifying information, OSU’s Office of Compliance and Integrity’s public records policy says that the university might inquire about a requester’s identity or the intended use of the requested records “should it facilitate a response or enhance the ability of the university to identify, locate or deliver the public records sought by the requester.” The policy also explains, however, that this information can only be asked for after disclosing that neither a written request nor personal identification information is required.
Davey said he thinks this might have been the case when the auditor was asked to provide contact information.
“It’s not necessarily a per se violation of the spirit or the letter of the public records law if someone is being asked their identity or if they are being asked to put it in writing,” he said. “It only starts to be a violation if the person is making it an explicit condition of the records being provided.”
Davey acknowledged, however, that OSU has room for improvement when it comes to fulfilling nonroutine records requests.
“Particularly at a place as large as Ohio State, it is not always going to be the case … that every front-line clerical employee is going to have a deep understanding of the nuance of the public records law,” he said. “We work very hard to train employees, to do everything we can to comply with the public records law.”
Ohio’s “sunshine laws,” the name given to the Ohio Public Records Law and Open Meetings Law, make records, meetings and other official actions open to the public. The laws exist to make the “people’s business open to the people,” said Nicole Kraft, an assistant professor of journalism within OSU’s School of Communication.
“The idea is, the reason why they call them ‘sunshine laws’ is that sunshine is a disinfectant, and the more that you can expose what the government is doing, the less likely there is to be darkness … and people feeling that the people’s business isn’t being done correctly or fairly,” said Kraft, who teaches a course on media law and ethics. “The more we can expose the opportunities people have to have access to public records, the more we can take the mystique away from it, the more the sunshine laws will continue to disinfect and provide a spotlight on the people’s business as it is being done.”
Statewide audit results can be found here.
Disclaimer: Nicole Kraft has previously served as the interim faculty adviser of The Lantern.