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Freedom From the Press?

Freedom From the Press?
September 23, 2008

The relationship between a university and its student newspaper is typically one of give and take. Some of this professional courtesy, however, has fallen by the wayside at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

In response to numerous sweeping Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by The Daily Nebraskan, the university is now denying student reporters direct access to top administrators for interviews. All information and comment previously sought from these individuals must now be gathered from the institution’s public relations office.

The administration claims the student newspaper’s recent history of seeking broad and, some argue, pointless FOIA requests of the university has burdened their previously harmonious working relationship. Student journalists at The Nebraskan , however, maintain that their document requests are within reason and that the university’s new policy of shielding administrators from interviews is hurting the newspaper’s coverage.

The student newspaper went public with the dispute in a fiery staff editorial explaining to its readers what some might see as a lapse in its typically even-handed coverage.

“Let us explain the situation our reporters are encountering,” the editorial reads. “These people, mainly administrators, aren’t talking to us. Therefore, we can’t interview them. Without interviews, we can’t quote them in our stories.”

Katie Steiner, the newspaper’s managing editor, said problems began near the beginning of the academic year when the newspaper’s projects desk, a new investigative reporting division, started making FOIA requests of the university for various stories it was pursuing. Such calls for public documents were nothing new for either party. Steiner notes that the newspaper often makes numerous requests of the university each year, including, for example, requests for the full public schedules of the chancellor and other administrators. This time, however, the nature of some of the newspaper’s recent requests did not sit well with the administration.

“They have a pattern of asking for broad, sweeping documents without any effort to or pretense of having a story,” said Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the university, noting that the university has ultimately honored all requests that fall under the jurisdiction of the state’s public records law. “They just want to randomly walk through records.”

At the crux of the dispute, Steiner said, is a recent Daily Nebraskan request for all other FOIA requests made of the university throughout the past four years and a list of the institution’s formal response to each. Among other requests, Perlman said the newspaper has also requested blanket e-mail correspondences between administrators during specific time periods and the university’s automotive expenditures for the year.

FOIA requests are often met with intense questioning, Steiner said, adding that she is often asked why the newspaper is seeking certain information. She claims that other local newspapers do not have their formal requests treated with such a high level of anxiety. Perlman, however, said the administration and the newspaper have often worked on a much more informal basis in the past, noting that the university usually has provided documents requested by the newspaper without formal FOIA documentation.

What Perlman views as a change in the newspaper’s previously congenial working relationship with the administration has led him and the university to deny it access to interview certain top administrators, who have typically been available for comment.

“They decided the relationship would be managed by the Freedom of Information Act,” Perlman said, noting that administrative staff are using a considerable amount of time and resources to meet the requests of the newspaper. “Now, I’m not one who rebels against the Freedom of Information Act. There are times when it’s an important tool of the media. Public agencies ought to be open. Still, these broad, sweeping requests for information without a story and a pattern to suggest that they don’t use the data struck me. Our senior staff is not going to be interviewed. Our news director will provide information, because I’m not going to take the time to do it as long as they’re going to file these crazy requests.”

Steiner, formerly a reporter on the administrative beat, said the relationship between the newspaper and the administration did not use to be so sour. She used to be able to call Perlman and other top administrators directly for stories and receive comment. Now, Steiner’s junior reporters must contact an official in the university’s public relations office for additional information and comment, if there is any. This is even the case, she said, for stories that are not all that controversial or critical of the university.

“It’s a top-down policy,” Steiner said, noting that other local papers are not treated this way, and have direct access to administrators for comment. “We would not have even known about this if it weren’t for an e-mail a former reporter got from Perlman’s office that says, ‘If you get a reporter, they have to be sent to the public relations office.’ Our readers deserve to know what’s going on, and that’s hard when the administration is shutting off access.”

Perlman said he, too, is not pleased with the situation and would prefer the two parties reach an agreement. If the newspaper withdraws its many FOIA requests, Perlman said the administration would reopen itself to student reporters.

“I hate it,” Perlman said of the current relationship between the newspaper and the university. “I’ve always tried to be open. I’d be delighted if we could go back to where we were. As it is, it’s been difficult. I don’t like this. I’d rather be open and engaging with students."

 

 

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