Texas university finally releases documents on security cameras
University of Texas partially complies with paper's open-records request more than a year after it was submitted

?2004 Student Press Law Center

March 5, 2004

TEXAS — Officials at the University of Texas at Austin have fulfilled part of the student newspaper's open-records request for documents related to campus security cameras after a yearlong, continuing legal battle that spilled over into the Texas Legislature.

Jonathan York, a reporter for The Daily Texan, filed the request with the university in October 2002. York asked for documents related to security camera locations, technical specifications, operating hours as well as financial information about the purchase of the cameras.

The university handed over the financial documents near the beginning of February. York used the documents to write an article that ran in The Daily Texan on Feb. 27, revealing that the university has spent between $300,000 and $400,000 on security cameras over the past seven years.

“[University officials] gave me what fulfilled that last category of my request because they did not consider it damaging,” York said.

The Daily Texan’s request became embroiled in litigation after university officials denied disclosure of any information about the cameras, citing the federal USA Patriot Act and national security concerns, York said.

The state attorney general issued an opinion in newspaper's favor, saying that the cameras were not part of a national security plan and documents related to them should be turned over to the paper under Texas’ Public Information Act. The opinion led the university to sue the attorney general. After a trial court ruled in the attorney general’s favor, the university appealed the decision to a state appellate court. That court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Meanwhile, in June 2003 the state passed House Bill 9, a measure that forbids disclosure of the technical specifications, operating procedures and locations of security cameras operated by all state agencies, including public universities. However, the law does allow for financial information to be released, said Lee Smith, associate vice president for legal affairs at UT.

“The university reviewed the request and actually carved out that information which fits within the scope of information the Legislature has indicated should be released in all cases and released it,” Smith said.

But The Daily Texan is skeptical about the provisions of the law, which took effect Sept. 1, 2003. York said he is examining the law to determine what is prohibited from disclosure since the wording of the legislation is vague.

“They changed the law so we don’t have access to that [information] anymore — or I guess we never really did,” said Wes Ferguson, The Daily Texan’s managing editor, who said he is frustrated by the apparent amount of influence the university has over the Legislature. Ferguson said the law resulting from House Bill 9 seems to be aimed directly at The Daily Texan’s request.

According to officials, though, the university is just following the law.

“The only fair reading is that people want to be deliberate about this because no one wants to make mistakes,” Smith said.

The university’s case against the attorney general remains at the state trial court, but both parties are considering a settlement, Smith said.

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