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Bill exempting university donor names passes Va. Legislature

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  1. Freedom of Information
Three public universities in Virginia will be able to keep private names of donors who ask for anonymity when making…

Three public universities in Virginia will be able to keep private names of donors who ask for anonymity when making gifts, pending the governor’s signature in the coming weeks.

HB 407 passed the state Senate and SB 130 passed the state House on Tuesday. These bills would grant the schools an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act to withhold an indeterminate amount of personal information about their donors, which for the University of Virginia alone includes 450,000 names.

Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, said this legislation won’t make a big difference from a practical standpoint regarding the universities in particular, but that it could start a wave of other public agencies seeking similar exemptions.

“This is a public body asking for the ability to keep private information about who is controlling policy through the universities with their gifts,” Stanley said. “This absolutely opens the door for more exemptions along these lines; not only from public universities but from all others that receive donations in the state.”

Craig Smith, legislative assistant to bill sponsor Del. G. Glenn Odor (R-Newport News), said the bill aims to grant anonymity for people who want to donate but don’t want their names available to the public, in fear they’ll receive an influx of calls asking for more money and donations.

“This is a great opportunity to balance the need for public disclosure as well as the recognition that in certain circumstances it’s in the best interest for the contributors to be anonymous,” Smith said.

The three affected universities include the University of Virginia, Virginia State University and University of Virginia’s college at Wise. Other colleges in Virginia are not affected because their donations are already funneled entirely through foundations, which are private entities, so donors already have the option to remain anonymous. These three schools, however, accept gifts through both foundations and straight to the schools themselves. When people donate directly to the school, the current open records law states that names must be disclosed.