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Muchnick v. The Regents of the University of California

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information

Court: California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District

Date Filed: March 15, 2022

Background: As part of his investigation into potential abuses in the strength and conditioning programs of university athletic programs, freelance investigative journalist Irvin Muchnick submitted a public records request to The Regents of the University of California in 2016 seeking records as part of an investigation into the suspicious death and injuries of student-athletes at the University of California-Berkeley.

The Regents refused to disclose records responsive to Muchnick’s request, prompting the journalist to file a lawsuit against the governing board.

In 2020, after litigation over the production of documents had concluded, the Superior Court for the Alameda County found that Muchnick’s lawsuit caused the disclosure of the records and granted the journalist motion for attorneys’ fees. In doing so, the Superior Court denied the Regents’ motion seeking to be declared the prevailing party, and rejected the Regents’ assertion that Muchnick’s lawsuit was frivolous.

The Regents appealed the Superior Court’s decision to the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District.

Our Position: The appeals court should dismiss the university governing board’s appeal or affirm the Superior Court’s decision.

  • The Regents’ attempted characterization of Muchnick’s lawsuit as “clearly frivolous” is without merit and seeks to chill future public records litigation.
  • The Regents’ interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as an all-encompassing bar to the disclosure of any records related to students — even those of public interest — is overbroad and, if adopted, would hinder investigative journalism and shield educational institutions from public scrutiny.

Quote: “If educational institutions are permitted to broadly and improperly assert FERPA as a bar to releasing any records related to students, not only will journalists not be able to carry out their duty of reporting on matters of public interest, but the public will be left in the dark.”

Related: In 2020, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a group of San Diego news outlets in their fight for attorneys’ fees after they intervened in a police union lawsuit that sought to block officer misconduct records from being released under the California Public Records Act. The brief argued that a California appeals court should reverse a lower court ruling that the prevailing news organizations cannot recover attorneys’ fees in a “reverse-CPRA” case, in which a third party is trying to prevent the release of requested documents.

An appellate court panel ultimately reversed the trial court’s order requiring the American Civil Liberties Union and media intervenors to strike their requests for attorneys’ fees and remanded the case to permit the intervenors to seek fees.