FOIA appealed in favor of DE

By Gus Bode

The Illinois attorney general’s office has ruled in favor of the Daily Egyptian’s appeal of a Freedom of Information Act request that sought the university’s policy on media access to administrators.

In August, numerous reporters were told by sources that all interview requests — and in some cases all questions — had to go through Rod Sievers, university spokesman. The newspaper sought to clarify the new policy with Sievers, who said there was no policy but administrators were tired of speaking to DE reporters and wanted him to handle their inquiries.

On Aug. 26, the DE filed a request through the Freedom of Information Act — a law that requires the disclosure of information and documents regarding public affairs when requested — for copies of emails and documents from or to Chancellor Rita Cheng and Sievers, related to access, interviews or photographs with university employees, the DE or any other media since June 1.

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Rather than reporters calling sources directly for interviews, as had been done in the past, employees told DE reporters they needed to go through the spokesperson. The employees included the vice chancellor for finance, the director of plant and service operations, a lawyer with student legal services and the director of the Center for Environmental Health and Safety.

At various times reporters were told this was an attempt to ensure that university staff “spoke with one voice.” Some reporters were told media relations needed to approve questions in advance.

The university released portions of some emails in response to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request, but refused to share others. The university’s redaction of the emails it released and its refusal to release others was based on a section of the act that exempts “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda or other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”

The Daily Egyptian asked the Illinois attorney general to review the denial on the grounds that if there were preliminary notes on a policy, there was probably a policy. Steve Silverman, assistant attorney general of the Public Access Bureau, said in a letter all but one of the redactions met the act’s standards for exemption, but one email clearly expressed a final decision.

In that email, which the university released to the DE, Cheng tells Sievers to make sure administrators have DE reporters go through Sievers for their stories.

“We cannot have the DE kids shopping for responses. Please remind them all to go through you to coordinate official responses,” she said.

Sievers said Tuesday this was not a policy, just an attempt to streamline media relations.

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“The chancellor wanted people to come through me to guide the reporters, and this is common with all reporters that I deal with. I get calls from people wanting to do one story or another and they come through me and I direct them in the right area and find out from that person … to find out if they are the right person and if they are willing to talk because not everyone is,” he said.

Bill Freivogel, director of the School of Journalism, said reporters need to be able to contact university officials for information about university affairs.

“I understand the university’s desire to hone a favorable message and feeling that this is easier by funneling all questions through one official,” he said. “But it is the press’ job to contact multiple sources to figure out what is going on at the university, and for that reason reporters can’t be limited to a single source of information.”

Sievers said Cheng wanted to better coordinate media inquiries and use media relations to promote the university.

“It is something we decided to try; it was a change,” he said.

Sievers said it was not a policy, but something to help with efficiency.

“It is just something we have decided to do … a policy sounds like it is something that is on the policy menu that is online,” he said. “It is a way of doing something and how to coordinate something. A policy is something that is approved by the Board of Trustees.”

Freivogel said he hopes in the future the university will have a strong interpretation of the FOIA law and what can be redacted and what can not.

“The university community benefits from understanding the university’s decisions,” he said.

 

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