Public records are ours by law

Staff Editorial

We need to demand more transparency from our University.

A year ago, Jacob Oblak, a law student at Vermont Law School, filed a public records request with UVM to see a police affidavit of Wesley Richter, who was arrested by UVM police after allegedly making a racial threat.

Oblak’s request was denied by Gary Derr, Vice President for executive operations.

He is now suing the University in the Vermont Supreme Court and his case is to be heard May 15.

If we allow the University to continue withholding public information with no repercussions, the line between what is allowed and what isn’t will be irreparably greyed.

The push for the freedom of information began in 1952 when the US government under Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to hand over documents associated with the dismissals of several federal employees accused of being communists.

Vermont has its own public records law for state agencies not covered under FOIA. The law allows for citizens to check agents of the Vermont government including UVM and its police services. Oblak is trying to do exactly that, check a public agency after they were found to not have the right to arrest Richter.

If the role of the people in a functioning democratic society is to be a check on their government, then the right to view public records is central to that.

One of the laws Derr cited as reasoning for his denial was the Family Educational Privacy Act, therefore making the police affidavit an educational record.

According to Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, there is never a reason under FERPA for a university to deny a police document on the grounds that it is an educational record.

As journalists, we understand the importance of information and make it our mission to bring that information to the public.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenteil, in their book ‘The Elements of Journalism,’ write, “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self governing.”

If UVM gets away with denying free information, it is an infringement on our constitutional rights to uphold the values of democracy.

Now, maybe more than ever, it is vital to protect our democratic values, including the right to check the power of our leaders.

The Cynic stands with Jacob Oblak in his fight for free information.

Staff editorials officially reflect the views of the Vermont Cynic. Signed opinion pieces and columns do not necessarily do so.

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