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Fighting for access to public information in the age of COVID

Many schools are withholding what should be public information about the coronavirus by claiming those records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA protects the privacy of student records, but does not require schools to withhold numerical information about cases on campus or other information that does not identify (and therefore violate the privacy of) individual students.

Clear information about the coronavirus, including but not limited to, the number of positive cases on campus is vitally important for the campus community. Here's how you can fight for access to information:

1. Craft effective records requests — SPLC's public record letter generator will help you file requests that are as specific and detailed as possible. The tool includes legal specifications for your state, like how long a records holder has to respond to the request. Pro tip: to increase your chances of success, narrow down the records you're looking for as much as possible. If the records holder is overwhelmed and you anticipate a slower response, prioritize more urgent records requests, like COVID information and hold off on less-urgent records. 

Create your request
2. Push back against denials — When records holders misapply FERPA, they typically use a few common arguments based on either misunderstandings of the law, or a deliberate attempt to suppress unflattering information. SPLC has developed a letter for you to download and send (or give) to administrators contesting these common arguments. 
See letter
3. File a complaint / appeal — If your public records request has been denied and speaking directly to administrators didn't work, consider taking legal action. These state-specific templates will help you file a complaint. 
See complaint templates
4. Need extra help? Contact SPLC's legal hotline — Our attorneys can help you evaluate the best course of action depending on your specific situation. The hotline is always free.
Go to hotline

New partnership in New England

SPLC has teamed up with the New England First Amendment Coalition to provide the students of that region with additional legal tools and access to media attorneys who can help them fight censorship. 
Read more

Back to school resources

For shortcuts to all of your top SPLC content, plus brand-new resources and tools for fall of 2020, check out our back to school page. You'll find our Coronavirus Toolkit, guide to covering protests, financial strategies for student media, new Virtual Speakers Bureau offerings, Ask SPLCs and more. 
See more

Q: I recently submitted an open records law request to my public school for budgetary information related to a time-sensitive story I’m working on. No one is disputing that the records are “public records” that must be disclosed. However, yesterday I received a response from the school telling me they are “not in a position to respond to your request at this time, given the disruption to operations brought about by the pandemic and state of emergency. Your request will be addressed in due course as conditions allow.” I understand that things are not normal right now, but is this vague, blanket denial permissible? 

A:
 Probably not — but it will depend on where your school is located. Nearly two months after much of the country shifted their workforce to social distancing models, reporters are continuing to receive a lot of “COVID-19 excuses.” And while the pandemic has significantly changed how all of us, including our government agencies, are conducting business, there is no blanket COVID-19 exemption for denying access to otherwise public government records or meetings. Most, though not all, states have invoked “state of emergency” provisions that have allowed them to modify — not eliminate — the way they respond to records requests or conduct public meetings. You will want to check to see what the current rules are in your state.

To track changes to state and federal FOI laws during COVID-19, see the free COVID-19 Federal and State Public Records and Open Meetings Measures hosted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 

See previous answers

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High school and college news organizations can show their support for SPLC's legal hotline and other core services by becoming a member. Your individual donations help us defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers across the country. 
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