Last month, the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia filed two motions on behalf of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia regarding documents that student journalist David Schick had obtained via a public records request and posted to his blog in August. One motion sought an order to have Schick remove four pages of the documents from his site, while the other requested that the pages be kept under seal. After controversy, however, the motion seeking to force Schick to take the pages offline has been withdrawn at the request of Attorney General Sam Olens.
The Student Press Law Center reported on the circumstances surrounding the incident:
The motions were filed as part of an ongoing public records lawsuit filed by University of Georgia student journalist David Schick. Two years ago, while a student at Georgia Perimeter College, Schick requested public records to investigate how the university system handled a budget shortfall at the college.
He was given some of the records he requested, but not all. Schick filed suit in June 2013, alleging the university system violated Georgia’s public records law by failing to provide records in the time frame required and by failing to cite exemptions when withholding records.
In the course of preparing for trial, the attorney general’s office took note of four pages that, according to last month’s motion, were “inadvertently disclosed” and “should have been withheld,” because each page “includes the name of at least one candidate for the position of president” of an institution within the system.
The Board of Regents could have redacted this identifying information from the documents before releasing them to Schick. But the request to have Schick remove the four pages from his website after they had been published reveals a lack of appreciation for how journalism works. Schick expressed his incredulity at the request:
“This was something I got legitimately through an open records request, and to basically blame me for their screw-up is highly offensive. They’re the ones we’re paying our tax dollars to to apply the appropriate exemptions. If they don’t, then that’s on them. You can’t, in retrospect, go back and penalize the journalist for being a journalist.”
Besides that, the request would likely be ineffectual, even if granted. Though Schick’s website is not highly-trafficked, it would be naive (and indeed, incorrect) to assume the documents hadn’t already been downloaded and reproduced somewhere else. We should all be glad for that—as long as state actors take steps to censor validly obtained or public information, the fact that data is so easily shared online these days will continue to serve as a safeguard for the citizens affected by such information.
It is good to see that this incident, at least, has been resolved in favor of Schick and those who plan on using the documents in question to keep Georgia universities accountable. A decision on Schick’s underlying case is still forthcoming.