Student Press Law Center – SPLC, student journalist resolve public records dispute with Kan. community college

SPLC, student journalist resolve public records dispute with Kan. community college

December 1, 2011

KANSAS — A college journalist and the Student Press Law Center have settled their lawsuit with Johnson County Community College stemming from the school’s $24,000 price tag for documents under an open records request.


Marcus Clem originally requested emails spanning seven months between staff members in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which was closed earlier this year, and the school quoted Clem $47,426, due upfront. A revised request spanning the month of December 2010 had a $24,130.72 estimate.


Clem and the SPLC sued the college in October, claiming the high fees violated state law.


The parties agreed to a reduced fee of $450 for about three months of documents, and dismissed the lawsuit Thursday.


Clem said he is happy to finally have the documents, which track the months leading up to the departure of program director Jason Rozell. Still, he expressed concerns about two unreleased email attachments that were withheld under the “personnel” exemption to the Kansas Open Records Act.


“What exactly happened is unknown to me, and even though we’ve had some communication with Mr. Rozelle, he hasn’t been able to tell us because he’s pursuing his own case against the college,” Clem said. “But it is clear that the information in those attachments is something the college wanted to prevent being public knowledge despite several months of open records process and finally a lawsuit.”


Clem said he has turned the 213 pages of emails over to the Campus Ledger student newspaper, where he no longer works.


Joe Sopcich, vice president of administrative services for JCCC, said the settlement benefits both sides.


“When you can stay out of the court room, it’s a success, and I think for everyone in this case it appears to be like a win-win for all parties involved,” Sopcich said.


He said the original estimate included potential costs associated with hiring an outside contractor to obtain the emails from the school’s archives. He said the college was able to retrieve the emails without hiring the contractor, and thus the actual cost was $450.


Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director, said such high estimates effectively keep the documents out of the hands of a typical requestor.


“What is most noxious about JCCC’s policy was their requirement of full advance payment of the estimated cost, meaning that a person would have to ante up potentially $40,000 just to get the request processed, even if the ultimate cost turned out to be $450,” LoMonte said. “Obviously, no requester is going to be able to dig into his pocket and come up with $40,000, so that was equivalent to denying the request outright, and the college knew that very well.”


According to the Campus Ledger, JCCC is examining its KORA policy, and Sopcich identified some areas with the policy he hopes to improve.


“In this case, we followed the policy to the letter,” Sopcich said. “I think there could be some improvement with regard to communication and things like that we can work on, but as far as that policy goes and what our actions were, we feel that we did everything that we needed to do.”


LoMonte hopes the school alters its policy to prevent a similar situation in the future.


“We understand that the college and its board of trustees are in the process of reexamining JCCC’s open-records policy,” he said, “and we are encouraged that they recognize reforms are needed and we hope that getting rid of this unwarranted ‘full payment in advance’ policy will be at the top of the list.”


By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer


© 2011 Student Press Law Center