CNN notes exemption complicates reporting on Penn State scandal

We give thanks in this week before Thanksgiving to the CNN staff reporting on the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State for explaining how a weakness in the public records law in Pennsylvania hampers efforts to unravel how officials responded to the allegations.   And for calling out the fired university president for fighting against transparency in the years since the alleged events occurred.

We do not normally comment on open records issues at the state level, mostly because we’re busy enough with secrecy in Washington.  However, we make an exception today because the story clearly explains how limits in an open records law affects what the public can find out.

In their report posted November 16 on CNN.com, the staff reported that the assistant coach under fire for not doing enough to stop Sandusky from allegedly raping the young boy asserted that he contacted police.  The reporters devoted seven paragraphs to explain that Penn State is exempt from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s open records law, including the fact that Penn State President Graham Spanier, fired after the scandal became public, fought against transparency at the institution:

“In 2007, state lawmakers considered a change that would have included the school under the open records law. But Spanier testified against the move before the House State Government Committee.

“He told the legislature he was concerned about cost and compliance. He also said they were competitive reasons for keeping records private.”

In the past decade, reporters have done a better job identifying when their stories relied on documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act or similar state law.

We don’t know if Spanier was attempting to shield the public and protect the university from these particular allegations, but the story raises the question whether public institutions are better off when they are subject to a strong open records law.

Note:  In the original story, the emailed version stripped formatting showing two paragraphs were quotations from the CNN.com story.  The posted has been updated to show more clearly where the text was quoted.

About sunshineingov
Coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative

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