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Public safety fears spark suspicion of open records requesters

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Public safety fears spark suspicion of open records requesters

  • Open records requests have prompted federal agents to question a Texas student and Parma, Ohio, officials to maintain files on requesters — a policy the city quickly rescinded.

June 11, 2004 — Public safety concerns in Ohio and Texas have led to suspicion — and in one case, the criminal investigation — of people who make open records requests.

In Texas, a university student’s request for information about a system of tunnels under the school sparked an investigation, while the city of Parma, Ohio, adopted a short-lived policy of maintaining detailed information on people who request public records. Parma would have passed on the information to law enforcement officials to identify people who might use public records to commit crimes.

A campus newspaper reported in May that FBI and U.S. Secret Service agents had questioned Mark Miller, a student at the University of Texas in Austin, in late January because of a state Public Information Act request he had filed with the university a month earlier. Miller had sought information about a series of underground utility tunnels that connect campus buildings.

Miller told the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan , that he filed the request after a physical plant employee told him the information was secret “because of 9-11.”

According to the paper, the agents questioned Miller on how he knew about the tunnels, how he knew about open government laws, whether he was a member of any activist organizations, if he had ever filed a lawsuit with the ACLU, what he was studying at the university, and why he had long hair.

On Feb. 25, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott affirmed the university’s denial of Miller’s request under a “critical infrastructure” exemption to the act.

Parma implemented a policy Monday requiring government officials to log detailed descriptions of everyone who requested access to public records under the state Open Records Law. Forms required requesters to list their name, address and telephone number. If they refused, city officials were instructed to record the requester’s height, weight, hair color, gender, race and age.

Mayor Dean DePiero told the Plain Dealer the policy would help police identify people who might use public records to commit crimes.

Powell Caesar, director of communications for the city, said the policy was adopted after a person requesting public records threatened a city employee. “God forbid we have something happen to one of our employees due to unfettered openness,” Powell said.

The ill-conceived policy was short-lived, however. After complaints by the Plain Dealer , the policy was dropped the same day it was implemented. No requester information was taken.

“I was the guinea pig,” said Plain Dealer reporter Joseph L. Wagner.

Wagner refused to fill out the form when he requested information from the city personnel office. A city official did not record Wagner’s description because the reporter was known from previous requests.

Powell maintains that the policy was legal, but that it will not be reinstated because of the controversy. “This is a dead issue,” he said

GP


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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