Q: I’m a newspaper reporter working on a story on a local man charged in a nationally covered rape case, and we have reason to believe he was being recruited by major college sports programs while on trial. I have the name of the schools, which are public institutions, and we want to know the best way of retrieving documents from coaches who were in contact with him.
A: It sounds like you will want to submit public records requests to each institution that you believe may have documents related to the subject of your story. Whether or not the public records laws apply to a state-run university will depend on where those institutions are located.
For example, in California, public institutions of higher learning are definitely covered by the Public Records Act. Under the Act, public records —which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Gov’t Code § 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.
We almost always suggest that a request for records in California be made in writing. If you make a written request, the agency must determine whether the requested records are disclosable within 10 days of your request, and “promptly notify” you, in writing, if it will make the records available, or specifically state the exemption it is claiming and how it applies to the requested records. Gov’t Code § 6253(c). The agency must also state the estimated date and time when disclosable records will be made available. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
My guess is that in most other states, public universities are likewise covered by the state public records law, but you might want to first review the laws in each jurisdiction before submitting your request so that you are familiar with both the procedure for requesting such records and the scope of the laws.
Finally, you can find a sample request letter (for California) on the FAC’s website, which you could adapt to other states as necessary. As a practical matter, you will also want to think about exactly whom to direct your request to. My guess is that you probably would want to send directly to the head of the college’s athletic department (assuming this is the department responsible for athlete recruitment). To this end, spending some time on each college’s website in order to figure out how its athletic program is organized is probably worth it before launching your requests.
Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.