Friday, June 07, 2019

OCPA column: Foot-dragging on open records


Foot-dragging on open records
By Jonathan Small

Is it too much to expect that public records be readily available to the public? The answer to that question is obvious, yet the default setting for many government entities is to withhold information, delay its release, and obscure transparency when they do.

The University of Oklahoma has not been the worst offender, but it could do much better. To its credit, the university did respond promptly to one request submitted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. In case you were wondering, OU paid the journalist Soledad O'Brien $50,000 for this year’s commencement address.

But in other areas, the college appears to be in foot-dragging mode.

Like many colleges and universities, OU has a “bias reporting hotline” that allows any aggrieved or offended party to anonymously inform on students or employees. OU has an “Office of Diversity and Inclusion” with a “Bias Response Committee” (BRC) whose purpose is “to evaluate and deliberate on bias and discrimination reports” received through the hotline. “The BRC will review and provide guidance to Office of Diversity and Inclusion and other collaborating units on how to deal with specific incident reports.”

Nationally, these hotlines have been a source of controversy because they can effectively chill free speech. Also, a system in which people may be targeted for scrutiny based on anonymous complaints can easily be abused. At the University of Michigan, an organization called Speech First sued the school over its use of anonymous reports to the bias response team, among other things.

Thus, OCPA has sought to learn what kinds of incident reports have come in at OU and how they were dealt with. So far, college officials refuse to say.

Since last summer, OCPA has sought through open-records requests to learn details about cases reported to the bias hotline. Because the hotline is financed with public funds, it is subject to disclosure, but you wouldn’t know it from OU’s response.

Our request was only for case details, and allowed the school to redact any personally identifying information contained in a report. Yet the school provided only a summary statistical report covering two years’ worth of calls, and declined to provide case specifics.

In March of this year OCPA made an updated open-records request, asking for the case files of all the reports received since the hotline’s launch in 2016, again allowing for redaction of personal information. We’ve gotten no response.

OU’s interim president, longtime David Boren staffer Joe Harroz Jr., has touted transparency, and schools in other states have produced similar reports to watchdog groups. Why has OU not done the same? One possibility is the documents would show most complaints are frivolous, which would raise the question of why the school needs to fund the hotline. But a more worrisome possibility is that the system has been abused and used as a tool of coercion or free-speech suppression. I hope that’s not the case, but OU’s continued silence doesn’t inspire confidence.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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