North Dakota University System Wants To Exempt Student Info From Open Records Requests

There’s been a lot of headlines created by the North Dakota University System’s request, now filed as legislation for lawmakers to consider next year, to exempt discussions of presidential evaluations and all materials used to produce those evaluations from state open records laws.

As I’ve written previously, the legislation is so broadly written that it could include just about anything.

What has gotten less attention is a second bill filed by the university system seeking to exempt the contact information university students. The bill is SB2133, introduced at the request of the State Board of Higher Education. The underlined portions represent changes to the law.

sb2133

This seems to be a reaction to grousing from Democrats during the campaign season about a request for student information put in by Odney, an advertising company which works with a lot of Republican and conservative campaigns. “We believe that it is wrong for the private information of college students to be shared for any political or commercial purpose,” Democrat Representatives Josh Boschee of Fargo and Kylie Oversen of Grand Forks said in a September Press press release.

They continued: “Odney Advertising’s admission that they intend to use this information on behalf of their political clients raises serious questions. State issued student email addresses are currently covered under open records laws, meaning the state considers them to be state property. In order to comply with Odney Advertising’s request, state employees at each of our colleges and universities are pulling lists for Odney Advertising. This essentially means state employees are doing political work on behalf of Odney Advertising and their political clients.”

That’s a bit of a stretch. There’s nothing wrong with using public records for political purposes. In fact, I would suggest that any law stating otherwise would have serious 1st amendment ramifications. If one cannot use a public record in a political debate, we’d have little of substance left to debate about.

The larger question is whether or not student contact information should be public.

Not so very long ago we used to print directories of student contact information – hell, directories of the phone numbers and addresses of the public in general – on paper and circulate them to everyone. They were called telephone books and the like. Heck, NDSU (as one example) has their student phonebook posted online.

Times have sure changed.

As a proponent of government transparency I have no real objection to the idea of exempting student contact information from open records requests, but a broad exemption in law is problematic I think. If we go too far in exempting information about private citizens (notice that the bill above expands an existing exemption for non-students as well), we may run into problems with identifying other people in open records.

Like, say, emails between a major university system contractor and a university president setting up a lavish hunting trip which sort of smelled like a kickback.

A better way to handle this was to emphasize that students have the right to opt-out of their contact information being public. Give students a clear choice instead of putting a broad exemption into the law.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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