A college journalist’s guide to public records

What aspiring student journalists can do with FOIA and other transparency laws

Written by Michael Morisy

You’re never too early in your career to start mastering public records, and even student journalists can use the law to get the inside story when human sources won’t talk. Earlier this week, Beryl Lipton provided a primer for high schoolers and public records, and today I wanted to focus on what college students can get out of government documents.

The first thing to know is that there’s a good chance what you’re interested in won’t be covered by the Freedom of Information Act — that is, the federal law. Instead, you’re probably best to focus on using your state’s public records laws, which have a variety of names from Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

Check out MuckRock’s state-by-state guides to public records for a primer on what is and isn’t subject to public records in your state. On each state page, you’ll also see average response time, response rate, and, perhaps most importantly, sample language you can use with lots of example requests you can use.

We haven’t yet filled out all states, but there are a number of other good resources if our state guides don’t answer your questions.

Two of our favorites:

The next thing to check is whether your college is public or private. If it’s a public university, it generally will have to follow the same public records laws that any other agency would follow. There are some exemptions, some of which are very broad. For example, Pennsylvania exempts several of its public colleges from much of the state’s public records provisions.

More broadly, Family Educational Right to Privacy Act, FERPA, is often the bane of any reporter who covers higher education. Administrators often use FERPA as a get-out-of-jail free card when it comes to responding to requests.

It isn’t though. The Society of Professional Journalists has a great guide to what FERPA does and doesn’t cover. Some ways it shouldn’t be used:

  • Directory Information, such as basics like name and field of study.
  • Honors and awards received.
  • Law Enforcement Records.
  • Records related to former students, if the records cover a time after they left the educational institution (say, an alum coming back to campus).

Colleges often stretch the meaning of FERPA to whatever is most convenient for them, so pay close attention and push back if you believe that what they’re citing goes farther than what the law allows.

Looking beyond FOIA and public records laws

It’s also important for student journalists to recognize that there are some special laws that provide transparency beyond normal public records requests, and these apply to even non-public colleges and universities.

  • The Clery Act requires disclosure of a variety of statistics regarding campus crime data. These rules, as noted by the SPJ, include providing (1) an annual statistical report; (2) a daily campus crime log; and (3) “timely reports” regarding crimes that present an ongoing threat to the campus community. The Clery Act applies to any college or university receiving federal funding, not just public colleges.
  • Non-profit filings, particularly 990s, are maintained by the IRS on all non-profit colleges. ProPublica has a lot of data from these filings on its Nonprofit Explorer website, and often times these filings can be acquired directly from the educational institution (this is where various publications get information on the highest paid college presidents, data you can scoop them on if you get to it first).
  • FERPA can work in your favor, too. In addition to ruling that some records are not public, FERPA grants students access to many of their files. You can file a FERPA request for your own files from a university, or ask a source to file for their own files. BuzzFeed has a guide on how to do that and what to expect.

But whether you’re using FOIA, your state public records law, or another transparency law, the key is to start practicing the skills that lead to FOIA mastery.

Here are some ideas to get you started. If you have other examples of great public records-powered stories for college journalists, let us know on Twitter or via email.

How much does your school pay for city services?

As (generally) non-profit institutions, colleges are exempt from taxes, including property taxes. This has lead to tension in many town-gown relationships, as those municipalities still provide a variety of services to the towns. Many cities and colleges and universities now have informal and formal agreements to help cover that financial cost, and you can file a request for those agreements.

Example Story: What do Boston colleges pay for city services?

How much is your school spending on lobbying?

A lot of money now flows to and from big colleges and universities these days, and a lot of that is government money. A number of schools now hire lobbyists to keep that money flowing, and you can request contracts and other disclosures to find out how much and what they were lobbying for.

Example Story: University lobbyists spend big on state lawmakers

Example Story: Updated: Public agencies spent $7.2 million to lobby in 2014-2015

How much are those high-profile speakers earning? What are their requirements?

If your college is public, so are its speaker agreements — and some of them can come with incredibly high price tags or strange agreements. Check out Carlton Purvis’ request for Wiz Khalifa’s concert rider for example language you can use.

Example Story: A college balks at Hillary Clinton’s fee, books Chelsea for $65,000 instead

Example Story: Ludacris’ UGA spring game concert rider included alcohol, condoms

Example Story: BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s $40,000 PowerPoint (See the request for that story)

High-Profile Personnel Files

For public colleges, you can often get a variety of personnel-related files, which are particularly useful if your school has any high-profile professors or even guest lecturers.

J.K. Trotter was even able to get selfies that Paul Krugman submitted as part of his employment with CUNY (Trotter also obtained information on Krugman’s rather high pay for the very part-time position)

Example Story: Here’s Marco Rubio’s College Syllabus, Reviews, And Personnel File From His Time As A Professor

Example Story: Here Are Paul Krugman’s Selfies

Other Contracts

Big institutions have to have all sorts of contracts and agreements; sometimes they can contain a lot of surprising information that few people ever bother to take a look at. Public records can help you get those stories.

Example Story: Tampa Bay Times Pays $90,000 To Sponsor University of South Florida Events

Example Story: NMU signed secret Starbucks deal

Student Complaints

When students aren’t happy, they can take it beyond just Yelp reviews and into official channels — and at that point, it often becomes part of a requestable document or database. Sometimes these databases will also include outcomes of those investigation. Using this kind of data, you can find leads (looking into the worst of the worst), trends (see how things change over years), as well as broad data analysis (how does your school or a particular landlord compare to others).

Some good sample requests:

Example Story: Harvard University’s WHRB leads Boston area college radio stations in FCC complaints

Example Story: These Former “Students” Say Trump University Was a Scam

Example Story: Brothel’ FOIA request denied by city (Remember, even unsuccessful FOIAs can be a story!)

But no matter what you’re after, be persistent. Public records rewards those who are patient with exclusive stories and data that make a difference in your college and community, and the time and effort you put in today will reward you throughout your career.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0