INC: Students continue fight for access to information
Members of the student media at Ohio University and elsewhere attempt to overcome barriers to public information.
Story: Rebecca McKinsey
As difficulties with obtaining information continue to plague student reporters, journalists at Ohio University and other schools are asking the same question: Why is it that the very institutions teaching them to be journalists are making it difficult for them to do their jobs?
In honor of Sunshine Week, which traditionally recognizes the importance of freedom of information, OU’s Society of Professional Journalists set out to discover just how far university officials would - or wouldn’t - go to keep students from taking photos in public buildings. Members of SPJ, National Press Photographers Association and Radio Television Digital News Association worked in teams to enter buildings across the campus and take photos, making note of the areas in which people protested.
Students Ross Brinkerhoff and Zach Nelson were confronted at Alden Library and Nelson and Shively dining halls.
“In all cases, we were told that we needed a permit to take photographs and that we would have to contact Ohio University Communications and Marketing to get a permit,” Brinkerhoff reported after the event.
Other students were asked to leave the Aquatic Center, Baker Center’s main area as well as West 82, and the Office of Communications and Marketing.
‘Not a policy... a courtesy’
While OU’s Communications and Marketing office said there exists no university policy specifically addressing photography in public places, students are asked to clear photography requests with the department first, said Katie Quaranta, OU media specialist.
Quaranta periodically fields calls from photographers wanting to arrange a shoot or officials wanting clarification that a photographer can be present.
“I certainly try to facilitate access as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Quaranta, who discusses the need for a photo with a journalist before setting up an appointment with the department or subject involved. “Whatever is appropriate for that situation is what I arrange. It’s a case-by-case thing.”
This process is to keep students from disturbing their subjects while photographing, said Renea Morris, executive director of Communications and Marketing.
“We just like for people to let us know and at least get permission from the building manager or people there,” Morris said. “The things we worry about are things that have to do with any disruption of normal business or operation. I’m talking about courtesy and letting people know what’s going on.”
Timing is key when it comes to convenience for subjects of photography, Morris added.
“If someone wants to photograph a particular building or be in a particular place, it may not be a good time when the reporter or student comes by,” she said. “We may suggest a different time, or we may suggest a slightly different spot. It’s not a policy, but it’s a practice and a courtesy.”
While there is no written policy for photographers, the Communications and Marketing Department does have a policy in place for reporters. In many cases, student journalists are required to use the department as a go-between to set up an appointment with a source. Reporters have often been told by potential sources that interviews will not be granted until Communications and Marketing has been notified.
“Our policy is, for (interviews with) administrative people, (reporters are) generally supposed to go through our office for issues like that, only because we want to make sure they’re talking to the right people,” Quaranta said. “That’s why that policy is in place, certainly not to bar anyone from talking with someone and certainly not to block access or anything like that.”
‘They say they’re protecting students’ privacy’
Several instances of student photographers being prohibited from taking photos in university buildings precluded SPJ’s Sunshine Week event. One of these students was NPPA member Sean Work, a senior studying photojournalism and photo editor at speakeasymag.com.
After several of his staff members were barred from photographing in Nelson and Shively dining halls, Work went to Shively himself to take photos for a story about the building’s recent renovations.
Work paid for a meal and ate before seeing two students searching for seats and asking if he could photograph their attempts. Both agreed, and less than a moment after Work began to take photos, an employee asked him to stop, telling him that if he wanted to take photos for a story, he needed to check with Quaranta.
After speaking with the administrator, Work returned to the students he had photographed to ask their names. He was again approached by the employee, who said she was going to “call somebody,” Work said.
Work left the dining hall and received a phone call about half an hour later from an OUPD officer urging him to check with the Office of Legal Affairs about where he is able to take photographs.
The photographer said he objected to the university’s denial of his access to spaces in which he, as an OU student, was allowed to be.
“I don’t have a problem with going through their channels,” Work said. “I have a problem with the fact that I have a camera being used to deny me access to a building where I’d otherwise have a complete right to be.”
His biggest protest, Work added, was the university’s claim that student photography is regulated to avoid disruption.
“When the employee at Shively asked me to leave, at no point did they talk to the people I had photographed and ask them if I was bothering them,” Work said. “That’s one of the things that fundamentally bothers me about this whole situation is that administrators ??” they say they’re protecting students’ privacy, but they aren’t even bothering to ask whether the students are bothered by this.”
‘It decided to bar reporters’
At this year’s Central Ohio SPJ chapter’s Founder’s Day event, OU was condemned for another perceived roadblock to students’ access to information - its closed Budget Planning Council meetings.
Members of OU’s student media - especially those on The Post - have long criticized Budget Planning Council, a board that advises President Roderick McDavis on financial matters, for its closed meetings.
SPJ awarded OU with its annual “Brick Wall Award” - an actual brick - for barring reporters from the council’s meetings. There were no representatives from OU’s administration there to accept the award as the audience erupted in boos and catcalls.
The award is typically given to organizations or people who impede journalists’ access to public records or information. Past recipients include the Olentangy Board of Education, the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio Historical Society. Since the award’s 2001 initiation, it has never been awarded to an individual university.
“We chose Ohio University for this dubious distinction this year because it decided to bar reporters from covering meetings of the university’s Budget Planning Council,” said Katy Waters, vice president of programming for the chapter, who announced the award.
OU’s Executive Vice President and Provost Pam Benoit, who serves as chair of BPC and would take part in any decision that opened the meetings to the public, defended the council’s decision to keep its meeting in private.
“I appreciate and understand the concerns raised by the Central Ohio Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists but I am confident that the position adopted by the university is legally sound and in the best interests of the university community,” Benoit said in a statement released in response to the award.
Allowing members of the press to attend the meetings would keep council members from speaking freely, Benoit said in a previous interview.
Waters refuted claims that the BPC, which does not make final decisions but rather recommendations to McDavis, should not be held accountable to Ohio open meeting laws.
“Several rulings by the state Supreme Court established case law that a group need not pull ultimate authority to be a public entity for Sunshine Law purposes,” Waters said. “We believe the university’s stand that the council is not a decision-making entity and not a public body ... is erroneous. Their decisions are important to Ohio news media and the general public.”
‘I was still being heckled repeatedly’
Student journalists at other universities are seeing blocked access as well. In an event that garnered national attention, Ohio State University freshman Alex Kotran was arrested after taking photos for the university’s newspaper, The Lantern, of two cows that had escaped on OSU’s campus.
The cows were being transported to a veterinary facility on OSU’s campus and escaped while they were being unloaded, Kotran said. The photographer happened to notice the commotion from his dorm and went outside to take photos.
Kotran was first approached by a university employee, who requested he stop taking photos. The employee said the event was an embarrassment and that Kotran should let university officials clean up the situation in peace.
Kotran replied that he was a member of the media on university grounds, which he said was public property. He maintained that he stayed out of the way of the people attempting to intercept the cows.
“I was behind the fence with everybody else, and I was still being heckled repeatedly by the facilities managers,” Kotran said.
OSU police officer William Linton approached Kotran twice, eventually handcuffing him and telling him he was under arrest for criminal trespassing.
“He repeatedly mentioned I was under arrest,” Kotran said. “He initially said, ‘You’re under arrest,’ and later he said, ‘You understand you are under arrest and you will be charged.’”
However, Paul Denton, OSU’s chief of police, later said that no arrest had been made.
“I’m not going to answer questions; I’m going to make a statement,” Denton said. “My statement is based on a legal definition of an arrest versus a functional understanding. (When an arrest is made), somebody remains in police custody and is charged.”
In the police report issued after the incident, Linton stated, “I approached (Kotran) and immediately placed him under arrest.”
Denton added that he supports the actions of his officers.
“(They were) dealing with a situation in which an individual placed others and himself in danger,” Denton said. “It had nothing to do with taking pictures, not from our standpoint. Police work needs to be transparent today more than ever.”
Denton declined to comment on whether the land on which Kotran was “detained” for criminal trespassing was public property.
The university police have since said they will not press charges against Kotran.
“It really shouldn’t be a big deal,” Kotran said. “If you have two crazy animals running around, they shouldn’t have been freaking out about the fact that I was taking pictures of it.”
‘Flouting the law’
Charles Davis, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, offered his insight on the situation. Davis spoke to students in Scripps several weeks ago about public records.
By keeping students from photographing freely, administrators are violating students’ rights, Davis said.
“I think (OU administrators) are flouting the law; there’s no question about it. And they’re certainly violating the spirit of what a public forum is,” Davis said. “A public forum is a common space where students get together to socialize, study, eat and act together as one. In those spaces, the student press ought to be more than welcome and able to do its job with the tools of its trade. That is a pretty bright line distinction.”
The policy in place at Communications and Marketing is restrictive to students as well, Davis said, adding the department’s claim to want to direct students to helpful sources and accurate information is a cover.
“If (Communications and Marketing wants) to make it easier for the student reporters, then leave them alone and let them do their jobs,” Davis said. “This is a matter of control, plain and simple. To camouflage it as something else is disingenuous.”
Davis added that restrictions on photography are even more difficult now because of the prevalence of photography-capable technology such as iPhones and camera phones.
“There is not an American citizen walking around a college campus these days that doesn’t have the ability to take photographs,” Davis said. “I think it’s going to be harder for colleges to take the strategy of restricting this.”
Problems are often caused by a lack of communication, especially between university administrators and police officers.
“The campus police will run amuck and arrest some kid for taking a picture of a cow; it happens,” Davis said. “And sometimes that’s unfortunate but maybe unavoidable because there’s just a breakdown of communication. But other times, it’s bad policy.”
Davis, who is friends with Tom O’Hara, the adviser for The Lantern, described the police department’s conclusion that Kotran was putting people in harm’s way as “comical.”
“From the facts as I understand them, to say that that’s stretching reality is an understatement,” Davis said. “It seems like this could have been one of those things where the (police) went like, ‘Yeah, our bad. We overreacted.’”
However, balance is necessary, and at times, journalists should be willing to compromise, Davis said.
“If a reporter wants to shoot in an academic building in a classroom while class is being held, I think it’s only proper for the reporter to seek and gain permission from the instructor,” Davis said. “What I don’t think is reasonable is bureaucrats weighing in and setting arcane rules and then stopping people from photographing in public spaces, which I know has been going on at Ohio (University).”
Whether a student asks for permission to take a photo or conduct an interview or enters into a situation looking for a photo and is asked to leave, there is something to be learned, Davis said.
“This is a very teachable moment in which students can learn that these rights that they have, these First Amendment rights, are not abstract things. They’re real,” Davis said. “I don’t want to see students who are cowed and intimidated into not questioning.”
-Taylor Mirfendereski contributed to this article.