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

Jan. 2.

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.”

(5) comments

Peter St. Cyr

The best solution here is to require these records to be digitally archived online from the moment they are created. Then students, members of the public and journalists can search, sort and download these public records at will.

John Harte

First, as a collegiate multimedia journalism instructor (California State University, Bakersfield and Bakersfield College) and former staff photographer of 28 years (Bakersfield Californian), I think it's fantastic that a multimedia journalism major is editor of the Daily Lobo. Second, I fully support Justin Garcia and the student journalists in this dispute, and I echo the statement by SPJ's Karen Coates. All journalists and citizens have an absolute right to pursue public records in whatever manner they deem appropriate. Period. The true issue here is the independence of student publications, which must remain free from university control, and the "warm and fuzzy" comment by Mr. Weiss, the chair of a major university journalism department, is deeply disturbing

Devin Bent

The problem with a "warm and fuzzy" person-to-person request is that the agency responding is under no legal requirement to be complete and candid in its response. It can omit records in secrecy and with impunity.

Hire a journalist for a journalism department.

malcolm mcfarlane

Classic New Mexico stupidity...having the Chairman of the Journalism school never have been a reporter. An advertising background! What a hack. Then, not being a lawyer, he absurdly interprets said law as “a line of attack”. Wrong. This Weiss fellow hasn’t a clue, and should be nowhere near journalism.

Khal Spencer

If Weiss wants to be warm and fuzzy, let him go home and wrap himself in a baby blanket. He should not be a department chair if he is going to be making comments like that under cover of authority. This is not an ad agency. Its a public university.

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