Full Disclosure: Using FOIA requests in a college newsroom

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McMichael’s student, Hannah Daniel, recently received copies of her grandfather’s World War II medals using the Freedom of Information Act.

How Georgia College students are breaking news using the state’s open records law

By Pate McMichael, adviser, The Colonnade, and senior lecturer, Georgia College

The first story broke on a Monday morning in our group chat: “I just heard a GC bus hit a person.”

Over the next five weeks, Georgia College, a public liberal arts university in Middle Georgia with 7,000 students, would experience the death of bicyclist, a devastating fraternity house fire, a norovirus outbreak that shut down the dining hall, an armed robbery blocks from campus, and the shooting of a GC student who narrowly survived.

Our tiny young staff at The Colonnade had little experience fielding red-hot news, but that group message changed everything. For the two editors staffing the news desk, the grind of those five weeks taught them a valuable lesson: getting public records in a timely manner can make or break the big story.

Below are three examples — along with best practices — outlining how GC student journalists have used state open records requests to break news and hold those in power accountable for their actions.

Milledgeville Bicyclist Killed by GC Bus

That Monday morning text turned into the above headline. The 21-year-old bicyclist, Logan Jones, died on his way to the hospital. What exactly happened remained unclear, and The Colonnade had a 10 p.m. print deadline. Staff members wanted more specific information to distinguish their coverage from shabby online reports. Editors wanted to know whether the bicyclist or the driver was at fault.

The Colonnade’s assistant news editor, Amy McDonald, filed an open records request at 2 p.m. for the official accident report. She also walked over to the scene and took photographs from a respectable distance (blood remained on the street) while confirming the accident location. University officials released a statement that afternoon providing few details.

The official accident report did not arrive for three days. However, in a stroke of luck, the Georgia State Patrol emailed some preliminary findings just hours before our deadline. The Colonnade only received those findings because McDonald had filed the open records request. It went online immediately, giving us the scoop:

“According to the Georgia State Patrol report, Jones was riding his bike on the Hancock Street sidewalk toward downtown and continued onto the crosswalk as a GC bus turned right onto Clarke Street. Jones struck the passenger side of the bus then fell from his bike and slid underneath the bus.”

Jones was riding illegally on the sidewalk. The bus driver turned right on green and never saw Jones until he collided with the bus. McDonald was sick with norovirus when she received the final report confirming her reporting.

“Sitting on my couch reading about whose fault it was,” she recalled, “that a student my age died in a tragic accident definitely jarred me a bit, thinking through the emotional ramifications the information would have on the victim’s family and our tight-knit community.”

McDonald will serve as our next editor. She plans to create a breaking news team for fall 2019. Her advice on getting public records in a timely manner is to submit them electronically. Outdated websites may say that people wanting information must submit their request by mail or by fax, she cautions, but the policy has probably changed. Call and ask.

“A polite demeanor can go a long way, whether it is through an email or over the phone,” McDonald said.

GC Investigated 3 Hazing Allegations in Fall 2018

The Colonnade’s hazing story ran in April 2019, but it actually began in October. That’s when the national arm of Alpha Tau Omega suddenly dismissed one-third of GC’s chapter. The hazing allegations concerned a pledge being asked to grow a mullet, which may have violated the state’s anti-hazing law.

It seemed pretty minor, but the university stood by ATO’s nationals. Soon after, university officials announced a mandatory anti-hazing seminar featuring the parents of Max Gruver, an LSU freshman from Atlanta who died in 2017 during a forced-drinking fraternity ritual. Something didn’t add up because forced-drinking was not a factor in ATO’s suspension.

GC’s “overreaction” soon made more sense when rumors emerged that GC’s Delta Zeta chapter faced forced-drinking allegations. That’s when Lindsay Stevens, the news editor, filed an open records request with GC Student Affairs. She asked for investigative files and conclusions regarding any and all hazing allegations.

Stevens soon received a 17-page document from administrators in student affairs. The hazing records included the ATO and DZ investigations, but also a previously unknown allegation against Kappa Alpha. The records revealed that an anonymous source had warned university officials that “someone is going to get seriously injured or killed” because of what the source described as a laundry list of dangerous KA hazing allegations. The source, however, provided no evidence.

The records also explained the process by which our university administrators handle hazing allegations. It showed that GC public safety officers do not investigate unless officials in student affairs ask them to investigate. Instead, a GC student affairs employee conducts the investigation and recommends punishments. Generally, student affairs officials act on the evidence they receive. They do not have the power to gather evidence using warrants or subpoenas. When not in possession of evidence, student affairs officials call members from the chapter in, confront them with the allegations and make a determination based on the chapter’s reaction.

McMichael’s student, Hannah Daniel, recently received copies of her grandfather’s World War II medals using the Freedom of Information Act.

The Colonnade’s scoop revealed GC dismissed eight DZ members for attending an unofficial event that involved forced-drinking. The evidence included text messages that clearly documented what happened. Still, the sorority was not punished although its members were required to attend a mandatory training. Student affairs officials cleared KA because its members vigorously denied the allegations. ATO’s punishment stood.

“Lesson I’ve learned are to be specific in your request but leave a little room to gather extra information,” Stevens advises. “In the fall I asked for hazing records rather than specifically ATO, and I got back an investigation I had no idea about.”

Now, Stephens is filing open records requests related to a 1970s serial killer. She also receives daily police reports and writes our weekly police blotter.

“My favorite part of getting records is reading them and learning about the legal process,” Stevens says. “The law is something I am very interested in and getting to see the police reports shows a me a little about the process.”

Unvaccinated Students on Campus

The Colonnade’s final spring issue contained a story on unvaccinated students. Senior writer Miya Banks broke the story just as the measles outbreak expanded to 22 states (Georgia included). Banks wanted to know how many unvaccinated students attend GC and whether the university has a plan for an outbreak. She wanted to know whether unvaccinated students had received a religious or medical waiver.

University officials do not have a master plan for an outbreak, Banks discovered, but an interview with the registrar explained one clear policy that Banks quoted directly:

“Should there be an outbreak on campus,” the registrar said, “anyone who does not have the vaccination will be asked to leave campus.”

The registrar initially refused to disclose the number of unvaccinated students.

“I asked for the records once in person,” Banks said, “then again with more careful phrasing through email because I was afraid, I had, perhaps, not stressed well enough that I wanted only numbers and not the names of students.”

After the email request, Banks received the 2015 numbers (71 students; four medical, 67 religious), but nothing current. She then decided to file an open records request for 2016-2018. Almost immediately, she received a lump sum (not a year-by-year breakdown) for all three years (112 students; six medical, 106 religious).

“I thought I had worded my request plainly,” Banks says, “but I think I may have failed to say, ‘I want these numbers by individual years.’”

The tally, divided by three, predicts that less than 1 percent of the student body is unvaccinated. It also shows that 95 percent of exemptions were religious, not medical.

“It was the first time I had to press so hard to exercise my rights,” Banks said, “and it paid off.”

Best Practices and Pitfalls

Student journalists should learn the difference between a federal Freedom of Information Act request and a state open records law request. The average FOIA request can take years to bear fruit, but a narrowly tailored open records request should be disclosed within two weeks.

GC student journalists recommend asking to inspect, rather than duplicate, the records. In Georgia, if you ask for a single duplication, you must also pay a fee for the time it takes to prepare the records. Inspecting the records should not prevent you from self-duplicating them with a camera. Including what you’re willing to pay for records that must be duplicated is also a good policy. GC students recommend agreeing to pay at least $5.

All student journalists attending state institutions can file open records requests for many different purposes, but they should be careful to avoid fishing expeditions. Open records requests are legal procedures, similar to lawsuits. Not every story merits such an aggressive approach. Often, departments and agencies will disclose records without a formal request. Take special care when seeking state employee’s emails and texts, especially when absent a clear news premise.

Students should lastly recognize that open records laws only apply to the executive branch. Filing an open records request for judicial or legislative records shows ignorance and inexperience. Almost all court hearings and records, except grand jury and juvenile, are assumed open to the public. Legislative records and committee reports can be found online or requested in person at the state house.

Holding universities and students accountable requires student journalists to remain vigilant. Learning how to file a concise open records request on the basis of a clear news premise will improve coverage.

After all, First Amendment rights have no value if not exercised fearlessly. Our new editor didn’t want to blame the victim for a tragic accident that cost a young man his life, but the records kept her honest.

“At the end of the day, I had to remind myself that publishing the information was important,” McDonald said. “The community needed to know a final verdict.”

Pate McMichael is the adviser of The Colonnade, Georgia College’s independent student newspaper. He also teaches media law and investigative journalism as a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication. His first book, Klandestine: How a Klan Lawyer and a Checkbook Journalist Helped James Earl Ray Cover Up His Crime, was published in 2015. His most recent work, “The Last Casualty,” will soon appear in The Bitter Southerner Reader, vol. 3. He holds an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Georgia and a master’s from the Missouri School of Journalism, which featured his story “The Big Payback” in Words Matter, an anthology of narrative journalism.