From the Editor: How and why to request public records

Dear reader,

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of the semester.

Typically, The Signal’s editor would write a column here reflecting on the successes of the past semester, and deliver a promise for continued improvement next year. If I were to do so, I might write about how amazing my staff is, and how grateful I am for their dedication. I might tease our upcoming projects, like the Sex, Technology and Student Government issues (those are all separate, by the way). And, I might even suggest you apply to join The Signal to reap the rewards of ethical journalism, invaluable networking and real-world experience.

But not today. The concept for this column was borne out of the many conversations I’ve had with my peers this semester — conversations with people who are frustrated by a seemingly bureaucratic university, by being “kept in the dark” by major university changes (Library Plaza’s demolition, anyone?), and so on.

Of course, our job at The Signal is to chase this information. We are a voice for the people, and daily we leverage the strength of public records to keep you informed like no other news outlet does.

But I’d like to invite you into our world for a moment and show how you, too, can leverage this information so you can be a more informed and empowered student.

For his insight and experience, I spoke with John McCosh, an alumnus of The Signal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and now a member of the Board of Directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

What are public records?
“The list of things that are not public — it’s easier to list those than things that are public records,” McCosh said.

Public records are documents maintained by public agencies or governments that are owned by the public. Public records are often kept as physical files, and most things — meeting minutes, aggregate student data, financial records, communications to and from public officials — are available to you.

“I’ve asked real estate agents how much a property costs and they tell me that’s private information,” McCosh said. “No it’s not, and I’ll get it myself then.”

Georgia State is a public university, and it is bound to the same laws as the governor’s office or the Atlanta City Council. However, not everything is fair game.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 prevents public agencies from divulging student education records. FERPA does not apply to aggregate student data nor does it apply to campus organizations’ data, as long as no single student’s education records become identifiable in the process of fulfilling your request. (It is possible for Georgia State to redact private information from your request, though you may incur a fee.)

FERPA is the primary law to keep in mind at Georgia State, but there are a few narrow conditions in which records are exempt from inspection. Information about those specific exemptions can be found online by searching O.C.G.A. § 50-18-70.

Why do public records matter?
In short, because an informed student is an empowered student. We at The Signal will often be your first source for campus-wide news. But what about staying informed on an issue specific to your personal experience at Georgia State? Enter: public records requests.

Step 1: Know what file(s) you want to request
It sounds like common sense, but this can be more difficult than you may think. Some requests are simpler than others. For example, requesting a report on the amount of student fees paid to Athletics in 2018 is a fairly easy request to fulfill, McCosh said.

But if you’re not entirely certain what you want to request, or how to clearly phrase your request, conducting your own research and building rapport with whoever may maintain that record can help provide direction.

Without clear direction, your request could receive any number of responses:

  • Your request is denied.
  • Your request is fulfilled, but you don’t get what you wanted.
  • Your request is fulfilled, but you get more than what you wanted.

That last one is especially worrying, because the more time and effort it takes for an agency to fulfill your request, the more expensive it can become for you (don’t fret, more on that later).

Do your best to be concise with your request. For example, “I’d like any emails between [person and person] that pertain to [topic] within the past [# of months].”

However, it’s worth noting that you don’t want to be too specific. In that case, your request may come up empty, or you may miss out on other relevant records that were just outside your date range. Be specific, but not limiting.

Step 2: Request the file(s)
It’s always best to begin casually — a simple email to the department in which you believe the files are maintained will suffice.

“If you can start with a friendly conversation of telling the public official … what you want, then you can save a lot of time,” McCosh said. “Especially in a place like Georgia State where they’ve got a well-staffed communications department, they’ve got a legal staff that knows what they have to comply with.”

Consider the below example:

“Dear sir/madam,

Could you please email me a copy of [file]?

Your help is greatly appreciated,

If a file for what you’re requesting already exists and it does not fall within any public records exemptions, you should receive it quickly. Georgia State does not legally need to create new files to satisfy a specific request, though it never hurts to ask.

You may also request public records in person, especially if they’re in your line of sight.

“If I walk into a public agency and I can see some pieces of paper or a document I want, then they have to give it to me right away,” unless it is specifically exempted, McCosh said.

What if my request is denied?
Hopefully your request is fulfilled with no questions asked. But if not, you may want to escalate your request and respond by citing the Georgia code that states you are entitled to the information you’re requesting. For example:

“Dear sir/madam,

Pursuant to the state open records law Ga. Code Ann. Secs. 50-18-70 to 50-18-77, I write to request access to and a copy of [file].

As provided by the open records law, I will expect your response within three (3) business days. See Ga. Code Ann. Sec. 50-18-70(f).

Your help is greatly appreciated,

There are two important concepts in play here. Firstly, notice the last paragraph that states “within three (3) business days.” By law, Georgia State must reply to your request within three business days stating whether they can accommodate it or not. After that, Georgia State must provide you with a timeline for when they will deliver you the records.

Secondly, by citing the code, you make it known that you’re aware of your rights, and that if Georgia State denies your request again, they must provide a specific reason for not fulfilling it.

The Georgia code states that “the agency shall notify the requester of the specific legal authority exempting the requested record or records from disclosure by Code section, subsection, and paragraph …”

If you’re certain your request is valid and it’s still being denied, it’s time to request outside support. Submit an assistance request to the GFAF online and they will provide you advice at no cost.

And — of course, I have to say it — submit a tip to The Signal. We’d be happy to investigate your claims.

Will this cost any money?
Let’s cut to the chase: there can be a fee involved. 95 percent of public records requests you make will likely not incur a fee. But if you’re requesting files that require personal information to be redacted, or if a great deal of effort is required to recover the files you’re requesting, Georgia State can charge you a fee per hour of work required.

Georgia law states that any fee greater than $25 must be described to you before any work is conducted to retrieve the files. It’s then up to you to abandon your request, refine it or accept the fee.

As with anything, it doesn’t hurt to ask Georgia State to waive that fee. And it might even be cheaper to ask to personally review the original file rather than have Georgia State make copies for you.

“In my requests, I always asked to review [the original] as opposed to asking for copies, because a lot of times you get enormous amounts of paper in response to requests sometimes, and the things you actually need copies of are four pages,” McCosh said.

What if I’m asked why I’m requesting these public records?
“The short answer is you don’t have to say,” McCosh said.

If you’re ever asked why you’re requesting records, it’s entirely up to you to respond. It’s worth noting that detailing your reason may help that university department find exactly what you need.

“If it doesn’t matter that they know, then it’s fine … But there are fine reasons to say, ‘I would prefer not to say why I want these records,’” McCosh said.

This column focuses on public records through the lens of public education and Georgia State specifically. But you can apply these principles and mechanics to any public agency in Georgia or your local government. And whenever you face roadbumps, you can always lean on the GFAF to provide you educated advice.

And if you’ve made it to the bottom of this quite lengthy column and all of this still interests you, there’s no better place for you at Georgia State than The Signal.

Until next semester,
Daniel Varitek