Journalists often use public records laws to compel public agencies to hand over information. But in California, a public community college is trying to use the records law to obtain information from student journalists.
On May 23, Gloria Chavez, Southwestern College's Title IX director, instructed The Sun—the campus student newspaper—to surrender an unpublished video of a May 2 student government meeting.
The meeting in question was tense, according to The Sun's reporting. The Associated Student Organization has two political parties: "Team Elite," which is comprised of black students, and "Team Green," which is comprised of Latinx students. They do not get along; in fact, members of Team Elite had allegedly threatened in an Instagram post to "chop the heads off of the euro-centrist white supremacist mexicans of the campus." Black students claim the post was fake, and engineered by Team Green to rally their supporters. University President Kindred Murillo ultimately decided to cancel the election.
Two weeks later, Chavez asked The Sun's faculty advisor to send her video footage allegedly recorded by Sun reporters.
The advisor, David Washburn, refused to do so. "I've been informed by an attorney specializing in open records law that these records are exempt from disclosure under California Government Code section 6254(k)," he wrote in a letter.
Not to be deterred, Chavez submitted a second request, this time arguing that The Sun was part of the college, and thus a government agency obligated to comply with the state's public records law.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education strongly disagrees.
"Many organizations receive government support of some sort, whether through funding, tax credits, or other benefits, but that doesn't make them government actors," Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at FIRE, told Reason. "Student journalists are journalists, and their outlets are supposed to serve as a check on—not an agent of—the college's administration."
In a letter to Chavez, Steinbaugh argued that The Sun is a separate entity from the college.
"Just as not every student is a state actor by virtue of being granted admission to a public college, not every entity within a college's community is a state agency subject," he wrote.
Chavez did not respond to a request for comment. My guess is that she thinks her job—investigating and preventing discrimination and harassment—obligates her to seek this potential evidence of students behaving badly. But being a Title IX official is not a trump card, and student journalists should generally be free from administrative imposition.