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Newspaper plans to sue university for violating state records law

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette intends to sue West Virginia University for violating its state open records law in three document requests…

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette intends to sue West Virginia University for violating its state open records law in three document requests the paper submitted to the school.

In a complaint the Post-Gazette sent to the university and the state attorney general, the newspaper said the school failed to respond in a timely manner to the requests, withheld some public documents entirely and redacted other information by intentionally misapplying exemptions under the law.

“It’s unfortunate that government bodies, be it typical agencies or universities, stretch out the FOIA process to a point that it becomes null and void,” said Don Smith, president of the West Virginia Press Association and general manager of The Inter-Mountain in Elkins, W.Va.

The requests, one submitted in late December and the other two in mid-January, are related to the school’s decision last fall to retroactively award a master’s of business administration degree to the daughter of West Virginia’s governor. Among the documents the paper said were illegally withheld include university President Michael Garrison’s e-mail, cell phone and landline records.

Smith said the principle behind a lawsuit of this nature is important because it illustrates perseverance the public and media often don’t show when faced with legal battles surrounding records requests.

“I don’t think enough people realize the importance of these [type of] cases,” Smith said. “Regardless of the information or people involved, it’s the principle. I don’t think the general public and the newspapers and press associations give it enough weight. We know the value but we seldom play through until the very end.”

The Post-Gazette is demanding the university hand over the records being withheld illegally as well as all legal fees involved in filing the lawsuit.

The newspaper sent its complaint to Garrison, the university’s attorney and the state attorney general, in accordance with a law requiring anyone intending to sue a public agency to give notice of that intent 30 days before the lawsuit can be filed.