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Community colleges subject to open records act

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PENNSYLVANIA -- Community colleges perform an essential governmental function, and therefore are subject to the commonwealth's open records act, according…

PENNSYLVANIA — Community colleges perform an essential governmental function, and therefore are subject to the commonwealth’s open records act, according to a 2-1, late-December decision by a panel of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, a midlevel appellate court in Philadelphia.

In March 1992, three campus newspaper editors at the Community College of Philadelphia sought access to campus security records. When College administrators denied their request in February 1993 after almost a year of negotiations, the editors appealed to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia County.

The editors argued that the open records act requires the college to release such information. The trial court disagreed, holding in March 1994 that community colleges are not agencies, and so not bound by the act. The editors appealed in late April 1994 to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

In its late December decision, the Commonwealth court found that community colleges are not specifically listed within the open records act’s definition of agency, and would only be treated as agencies if they were “statutorily created to perform an essential government function.”

The court concluded that the act authorizing community colleges indicates that the colleges are to perform an essential government function. The court noted, among other things, that political subdivisions sponsor the colleges, subdivision officials appoint the trustees, commonwealth agencies approve and regulate the colleges, and the local and commonwealth governments finance them.

The court acknowledged that the commonwealth constitution does not require the legislature to provide education beyond the secondary level. The constitution does, however, require the commonwealth to create and support a public school system.

In fulfilling that constitutional mandate, the legislature had discretion in how to create that system, and its decision to include a mechanism for community colleges demonstrated that the colleges were to help fulfill that essential government function.

Consequently, the court concluded, community colleges are agencies for the purpose of the open records act. The court reversed the lower court decision, instructing the lower court to determine whether the incident reports themselves fall within the act. (Brown v. Community College; Media Counsel: Joseph A. Sullivan, Philadelphia)