In April, I wrote in an editorial at the Burlington Times-News that North Carolina attorneys needed to step up to the plate and enforce our state’s public records law. Since then, the Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom (CLF) has aggressively pursued any and all legal means of enforcing these laws, whether on our own behalf or that of third parties. The narrative surrounding one recent Civitas public records request is informative as to how and why CLF goes about pressuring state agencies.
In January, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill facilitated a dinner between high-ranking university officials and several student groups. However, a number of student groups were excluded from the dinner, many of which had conservative or libertarian leanings. While this may have been a legitimate oversight, CLF followed our basic rule of thumb when dealing with questionable government activities – trust, but verify.
On February 9, a Civitas policy analyst filed a public records request with the University of North Carolina asking for any and all communications generated among several university officials during the buildup to this event. Almost immediately she received an acknowledgment of her request from one of UNC’s public records specialists. However, that was the only thing she received for quite some time. CLF followed up in early March and was told simply that the request was “being processed.”
Knowing when to press harder on a pending public records request can be difficult. While the only cause of action provided for in the general statutes is for the denial of a records request, the statutes also make clear that agencies must provide copies of public records “as promptly as possible.” By early May, CLF felt that enough time had passed to apply additional pressure.
On May 11, we sent a letter to several UNC officials stating that if our request was not fulfilled in a timely manner, we would be filing suit in Orange County Superior Court. One week later, UNC’s counsel informed us that they would work to fulfill the request quickly, which they did. We received records responsive to our request on May 26.
After reviewing the records, our verdict is that the university certainly did err by excluding several non-political conservative-leaning groups from the dinner event. However, this error seems to have arisen out of the event planners’ inherent bias in favor of certain groups, rather than some master plan to exclude conservatives from the discussion.
Two important lessons can be taken from this saga. The first is that the Center for Law and Freedom is ready and willing to aggressively pursue public records requests, whether on behalf of the Civitas Institute or anyone else. The second is that we will do so in a respectful manner whenever possible. Our long-term goal is to open up North Carolina’s public records laws by challenging a status quo full of unreasonably long delays and bureaucratic red tape. This is best done by keeping the law, rather than political theater, at the center of the issue.