Students struggle to access records due to COVID-19

A majority of the requests to SPLC’s legal hotline in March and April were about COVID-19 related access issues. Public records are vitally important tools for investigative reporting, but student journalists seeking records have always had to struggle through red tape, delays, overcharging and flat out denials.

COVID-19 has created both real challenges for records holders, and a convenient excuse for schools looking to stonewall journalists.

Here are some tips to improve your chances of obtaining the records you're seeking:

  • Be as specific and narrow as possible when requesting records. You can use SPLC's public records letter generator to craft your requests.
  • Prioritize the records that are most important right now. 
  • Be polite and flexible when working with records holders, but stay firm. Campus closures may limit their access to the records you're seeking, but some may take advantage of the situation.
  • Know your state's open records law. Two-thirds of states have ordered state of emergency modifications to their Freedom of Information Act laws because of COVID-19. Some states have increased the amount of time records holders have to respond to FOIA requests.
  • If you're denied a record, push back! Find how to appeal a public records denial in your state.
  • For direct help tailored to your situation, contact SPLC's legal hotline
Read more

Want to learn more about public records?

Check out SPLC's public records resource guides including FAQs, what you need to know about FERPA, and information specific to high school and college records.

Advisers, you can book an expert to speak to your class or newsroom about FOIA (or one of our other pre-set topics) using our Virtual Speakers Bureau. Or lead the lesson yourself using our classroom-ready powerpoint presentation.

Last call! Help us recognize courageous student journalism

Nominate students by May 22, 2020 for SPLC's high school journalism and college journalism awards to recognize exceptional efforts in fighting for student press freedom.
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Q: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, our community is practicing social distancing, so school board meetings are now held via videoconference. Our administration requires anyone who wants to attend a meeting to complete a registration form, which is then used to determine who gets to participate. This isn’t just entering a password to access the videoconference call. Is it legal for the school administration to enforce this requirement?

A: If school board meetings continue to occur during the pandemic, being able to freely access to them should not change. Adding special attendance requirements during this time, such as completing a registration form, is likely illegal. You have a right to be present, though it is possible you have to exercise that right virtually using technology. But COVID-19 cannot be cited as an excuse to stop you from attending a meeting otherwise protected by your state’s open meetings law. Check out what your state law says in the Open Government Guide, a handy resource from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In California, for example, the Bagley-Keene Act and Brown Act prohibit attendance to be conditioned on registering for the meeting, filling out a questionnaire, signing an attendance list, or providing other information — doing so is purely voluntary.

See previous Ask SPLC answers

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