A disagreement over public records requests between the chairman of the journalism department at the University of New Mexico and the editor of the school’s independent student newspaper is making headlines.
The dispute stems from a request for university records by Justin Garcia, a 24-year-old senior from Edgewood and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, the Daily Lobo. In October, Garcia sought five years’ worth of documents associated with the Communication and Journalism Department’s student grievance procedure, citing the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, which requires government agencies to provide public access to emails, police reports, court documents and other records.
Garcia received redacted documents in response to his request. Later in the semester, Garcia filed a new request for emails from department Chairman David Weiss, in which Weiss said he feels disturbed by what he see as the Daily Lobo’s misuse and abuse of the public records law.
On Thursday, the student newspaper published a story by Garcia with statements from two associations defending the newspaper’s use of the law — the New Mexico branches of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The story includes Weiss’ emails chastising the paper.
In a phone interview Friday, Weiss said he remains upset Garcia did not contact him directly for the records he was seeking before resorting to a formal request through the public records law.
“My position is that I find it personally annoying when an [Inspection of Public Records Act] request is used as a first line of attack,” said Weiss, a former advertising executive in New York City who does not have experience as a full-time journalist.
“In my mind, the law exists for after you can’t find what you want through personal contact,” Weiss said.
“As department chair,” he added, “I’m somebody you’re going to want to have as a reliable source. I’m more likely to be a reliable source if you make me feel warm and fuzzy. If a request comes from my lawyers rather than directly from you, the reporter, that doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy towards you.”
Garcia, a multimedia journalism major, said he is worried that such words from Weiss will prevent future student journalists from filing requests for public records from government agencies.
“I see the role of the Daily Lobo as twofold,” Garcia said. “First, having a newspaper to hold people accountable. Obviously, that’s important. And what I’ve come to realize as editor is that our function of training student journalists is just as important. And I don’t want student journalists to be discouraged from learning to use one of the strongest tools we have to obtain information.”
Gwyneth Doland, a correspondent with the New Mexico Public Broadcasting Service and a professor in UNM’s Communication and Journalism Department, sees a learning opportunity in the dispute between Garcia and Weiss.
Doland, also a former executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said she understands frustrations on both sides of a public records request.
“As a first communication with people in your own department, I can see how an Inspection of Public Records Act request would seem really aggressive and unfriendly,” said Doland, who teaches the department’s media law and ethics course, which covers the records law.
“But journalism can be aggressive and unfriendly,” she said. “That’s how it is.”
It doesn’t always have to be that way, she added. While the law is a powerful tool for reporters, she said, “you have to understand how it feels to be the real human being targeted on the other side of one of these requests.”
Currently, attempts to file a public records request with UNM are met with a message saying the records office is closed and that the records custodian will not respond to requests or emails between Dec. 23 and
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government posted a statement on social media Friday afternoon saying the law has no provision allowing an exception for a closed office and that a local or state government agency in New Mexico must respond to requests within three days and provide the documents within 15 days.
“It is certainly true that the University of New Mexico has a bad record of compliance” with the Inspection of Public Records Act, Doland said. “And that is a serious problem.
“Hopefully,” she said, “this is an opportunity for all of us to talk about how we can go about maintaining the delicate balance of power between the press and government.”