Emory Report
April 6, 2009
Volume 61, Number 26


Emory Report homepage  

April 6
, 2009
Project finds closed doors to open records

By Patti Ghezzi

On her first visit to the DeKalb County police department, Viviana Arboleda was polite. As part of a statewide journalism project on citizen access to public records, she requested police reports from the previous day. She gave the clerk her information and checked her mailbox each day for the documents she was promised.
They never arrived.

She returned and requested the information again. She received nothing. When she asked why, she was told her request was too expensive. She scaled her request back to include just the most recent homicide. Again, she received nothing.

“They were trying to avoid all possible ways for me to get a public record,” the senior says. “It became a goal of mine more than a class project to get those documents.”

For her fourth attempt, Arboleda asked a police officer. He escorted her to his office and printed the reports.
Arboleda wasn’t the only student to meet resistance while pursuing routine documents as part of the Georgia Student Sunshine Audit, the first such study to determine how willing Georgia government officials are to provide records citizens are entitled to under the state Open Records law. Overall, one-third of agencies audited failed to comply.

More than 120 journalism students from eight universities participated. They found county commissions the most open, and police and sheriff departments least likely to comply with the law. Students sought their assigned records in the fall and recorded their experiences in a central database.

The project was sponsored by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and funded by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the James L. Knight Foundation. Kennesaw State University Professor Carolyn Carlson provided training, in an effort to create a uniform, credible study.

Journalism Program Director Sheila Tefft wanted to raise knowledge of — and respect for — sunshine laws. “We’re trying to light a fire here,” she says, noting that in the post 9/11 climate her students are accustomed to, concern for national security takes precedence over open government.

Tefft found the excuses government officials use to withhold documents haven’t changed since she was a cub reporter covering a noncompliant Wisconsin library board. A student’s request for police brutality reports was met with the response: “We don’t have police brutality.” Others were charged as much as $150 for basic reports. Students were repeatedly asked why they wanted the information. “They have no right to ask,” Tefft says.

Dale Cohen, an adjunct professor at Emory and associate general counsel for Cox Enterprises, also was unsurprised at the results of the study. When teaching communication law, Cohen always requires his students to file a public records request. This project enabled his students to compare their findings with others statewide and see the overall dismal state of compliance in Georgia.

“There are a number of counties who are not consistently complying with the letter of the law or the spirit of the law,” Cohen says, adding that students ran into the same barriers working journalists face, such as stalling in hopes that the reporter will lose interest.

Several students, including Arboleda, presented their findings at the Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary Conference in February. Cohen hopes the data will be shared and used to improve compliance rates statewide.

Arboleda, who plans to study broadcasting at a graduate school in Miami, said the project taught her to try different strategies instead of waiting for one person to comply with a records request. “As a journalist,” she says, “you have to be quick on your feet.”