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Football coach's salary public, divided court rules

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Aug. 18, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Aug. 18, 2005

Football coach’s salary public, divided court rules

  • The salary of Pennsylvania State University’s football coach is a public record enjoying no privacy protection, an intermediate appellate court ruled last week.

Aug. 18, 2005  ·   The salaries of Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno and three other university officials are public records not protected by any privacy exemption to the state’s open records law, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled 3-2 Friday.

“Access to this information allows the public to meaningfully evaluate the wisdom and appropriateness” of public employees’ salaries, the majority of the court wrote. The university receives hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax money every year, according to court records.

Jan Murphy, a reporter for The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News, requested salary information for numerous Pennsylvania State University officials, including Paterno, from the State Employees’ Retirement System in December 2002. When the benefit program notified the university of the pending request, the university objected, arguing that the records’ release would compromise the employees’ privacy.

An administrative review at the retirement system concluded that the records be released. The university appealed.

“Employees’ compensation information is instrumental in calculating a defined benefit, to which PSU employees, as active members of [the benefit program], have a vested contractual right,” Judge Bernard L. McGinley wrote for the majority.

Because “that right unquestionably involves the disbursement of Commonwealth funds, the compensation information falls within the definition of public record,” he continued.

McGinley also wrote that the records were not protected from disclosure because release would not jeopardize the employees’ physical or economic security. “[S]alary alone is not so personal and inextricably linked to an individual’s identity as to threaten one’s personal security,” he wrote.

Writing for the 2-member dissent, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman said that the employees’ privacy trumped disclosure. “Inasmuch as the [open records law] did not exist” when Paterno first bought into the benefits program in 1950, he “was not put on notice before he became a member . . . that his compensation information was subject to disclosure.”

The university said that it would appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. For his part, Paterno seemed not to care. “Whatever the university wants to do is fine,” he said at a news conference. “If you want to release it, release it. If you don’t want to release it, don’t release it.”

(Pennsylvania State University v. State Employees’ Retirement Board; Media Counsel: Craig J. Staudenmaier; Harrisburg, Pa.)RL

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