ASU gets called out for redacting “embarrassing” information from its FOIA requests

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Yet another publicized misstep for Arizona State University’s administrators! This article is in direct response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by The Arizona Republic which pertain to the low staffing numbers at ASUPD.

From azcentral.com:

When I was a kid back in a more innocent time, the pre-Beatles 1960s, my friends and I occasionally hung out in the magazine section of the local drugstore and flipped through publications that our parents didn’t want us to see.

But it seemed that every time we got to the good stuff, a black bar blocked our view of an offending part. Magazines are less discreet these days, but those black bars still get plenty of use by your government officials. The federal Freedom of Information Act and the Arizona Public Records Law are among statutes that require governments to make their documents available to the people who pay for their bills.

That doesn’t mean they must let you read everything. In certain situations, they are allowed, and sometimes required by law, to redact information in those documents.

That’s when the little black bars get a workout. There are even computer programs like Adobe Acrobat Professional that make it easy to cover up the sensitive parts with solid inkjet lines. But sometimes we in the media believe the government goes too far in obstructing our view of information that is rightfully yours.

On June 2, we requested a copy of any and all minutes of recent meetings of the advisory board to the chief of the campus police at Arizona State University, citing the Arizona Public Records Law.

Reporters Anne Ryman and Rob O’Dell were working on a story, published last Sunday, about the staffing shortages at the university’s Police Department, which was a topic taken up by the advisory board.

The university complied, but with six pages missing from the minutes of the Oct. 17, 2013, meeting. Ryman, as is her right, appealed and asked for the full document. This time, the university provided all the pages, which included comments from officers about the morale problems in the department.

Among their gripes: “… no unity exists in the department.” “The Department is short-staffed by 50-80 officers.”

Still, not everything was there. Eight lines were redacted under the heading Officer Safety Issues. These were concerns expressed by the university’s police officers. We thought the public had a right to know what they were.

The Public Records Law requires that the government state its reason for blacking out information. ASU information officer Julie New­berg said the section was “redacted according to the Best Interest of the State.”

The law does say that “a public officer or public body may refuse to disclose documents that contain information protected by a common law privilege where release of the documents would be harmful to the best interests of the State.”

Our only course of action at that point would have been to take the university to court to obtain the unredacted document.

Except …

Two sources with legitimate access to the full text of the minutes provided us with copies.

So, what was the university hiding?

They didn’t want you to know that the university’s main campus was sometimes staffed by only two officers on a shift. (The department’s own policy requires four.) They also didn’t want you to know that their officers are sometimes unfamiliar with the areas they police during “party patrols” and that they have difficulty communicating with Tempe police officers because they use different equipment.

Harmful information? I don’t think so; the specific understaffed shifts weren’t revealed. More likely, school officials were embarrassed by the short staffing and lack of training.

And under the law, “the cloak of confidentiality may not be used … to save an officer or public body from inconvenience or embarrassment.”

As I recall it, some of those folks in the magazines way back when would have looked better covered by some kind of cloak as well.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Stuart Warner is a senior content manager and Pulitzer Prize-winning editor. He supervises coverage of the border, immigration, higher education, the environment, Maricopa County government and justice enterprise.

The writer, Stuart Warner, hit the nail on the head.

ASU has used this “cloak of confidentiality” for years to conceal the totalitarian leadership which exists both at ASUPD, and also the university at large. Beyond the censoring of public documents, ASUPD has gone even further to prevent exposure and potential embarrassment. ASUPD’s policy manual seeks to broadly sensor the 1st Amendment rights of its employees outside of work by stating, “when reasonable suspicion exists that the police department is being discredited by an employee through electronic media, the employee may be required to allow access to personal accounts or hardware/equipment for inspection.” (PSM-26-102). Therefore, if an employee (even anonymously) brings forth documentation that the department has discredited itself, he/she is the one who falls under scrutiny, NOT the department or the university.

It is becoming more apparent to the public that the ideology found in Michael Crow’s “New American University” has more in common with communism than it does with the democratic principles found in the United States Constitution.