After an investigation into the Penn State University’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky sexual molestation scandal, news organizations reported that the university had a long history of covering up for Sandusky’s actions. While university officials may have been at fault for the initial cover up, an exemption to Pennsylvania’s open records law, which protects the university from public inquiry, could have made it easier to hide information for so many years. Source.
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News told a group of journalists that the open records laws exemptions shielded Penn State from inquiry. Such documents as police records, memos, calendars, emails, and phone records are closed. Although all higher educational institutions are not excluded from the open records laws, four major universities in Pennsylvania are. Ganim pointed out that better open records laws may not have prevented Sandusky’s abuse, but it might have led authorities to uncover what was going on much earlier—perhaps even in 1998, when a campus police report was filed relating to Sandusky’s conduct.
Even though the four exempted universities receive state funds, they remain exempt from the open records laws. This is in sharp contrast to Florida, where the Sunshine Law includes public collegial bodies, or in Nevada, where the university system is also included (as well as electronic communications such as email). Del Papa v. Board of Regents, 956 P.2d 770 (Nev. 1998). Nevada, in particular, has recently taken great strides to expand its open records and open meetings laws after forming a task force more than a year ago to help overhaul the old statutes.
Open records laws are an extremely important way for journalists, both mainstream and novice, as well as the general public, to shine a light on what is happening in local government and public entities. The laws provide a mechanism with which to hold public and state entities accountable for their actions. Given that the excluded Pennsylvania institutions still receive state funds, Penn State and others should not be exempt from accountability. The heartbreaking situation of the Penn State athletic department has helped draw attention to the fact that it might be time for Pennsylvania and other states with narrow open records laws to revisit them during the next legislative session. Take a page from the Florida and Nevada playbooks.