Right To Know Request Raises Concern from Faculty

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 at 8:05 PM

You are a professor and have 10 minutes until your next class. The classroom is right down the hallway, so you routinely check your email before students begin parading through the door. You open one email, and see your home address is going to be released to someone through a right to know request.

In only a few minutes, everyone who you’ve ever had a disagreement with — however small or insignificant — crosses your mind. And as you pull up your PowerPoint for the day’s lesson, it weighs heavy.

Pennsylvania’s New Right to Know Law, more commonly referred to by its short name, the “Right-to-Know Law,” went into effect on Jan. 1, 2009 after being signed by former governor, Edward Rendell on Feb. 14, 2008. The Right to Know Law allows individuals to request public information, as it requires a designated open records officer in any public agency within the state to provide requested information.

“I think the Right to Know Act as an objective, sunshine policy is important. It allows the public to more easily get information from institutions, information that is public,” Dr. Robert J. Wertz, Edinboro University journalism professor and representative of Edinboro’s chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF), said.

For Edinboro University, the most common requests are for contact information or about financial transactions, according to Pablo Reyes-Cruz, the assistant compliance officer from the Edinboro University social equity department.

The information that people can request is data that might be accessible, but might also be complicated to find in public domains.

“It’s available, but it’s difficult to find sometimes. It’s obscurity through obscurity,” Wertz said. “The right to know law allows people to ask for very specific information without having to mine through a mountain of data.”

As former production manager at WICUTV, newscast director at WSEE-TV and current contributing editor at The Erie Reader, Wertz knows how valuable the right to know act can be for a journalist.

“Where that line gets blurred is where outside organizations or individuals start asking for personal information about employees simply because that’s built into the legislation,” he said. “Anybody can make that request. All they need is a reason; it could be genuine, but it could also be nefarious. And that puts all of us at risk.”

Dr. Jean Jones, president of Edinboro’s chapter of APSCUF, agrees with Wertz; she says the policy is of significant importance, but thinks that some portions of the right to know act are irrelevant to taxpayers, journalists, or anyone else who might be looking for information. Taxpayers, in particular, she says have the right to know where their tax dollars are being spent.

“It creates transparency, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “The downside is that people can go on fishing expeditions… so it can lead to people who are unscrupulous or [are] just curious [to make requests] — and it’s the right to request it — but they can make these big, broad requests that could be timeconsuming and costly for the university to take care of.”

One of the more recent requests was made by Leah Therasse, local Edinboro business owner. She asked for faculty home addresses, but her reason for the request is unknown as an attempt to contact Therasse was unsuccessful.

She made the request on Dec. 8, 2015. The university had five business days to respond to right to know requests, but since this one required more time, an extension was requested within that period.

After some negative responses when faculty members were notified of the request, Therasse rescinded her request on Feb. 4 at approximately 11:10 a.m. during a phone call with Ronald A. Wilson, the Edinboro University open records officer.

“I feel that most of the faculty hold the view that my phone number is not unlisted, [and] you could do a Google search and find my home address, so I don’t want to speak for them, but generally, I’m not hearing concern about it,” Jones said.

“But for those who do care about their privacy, this is a great concern, and I’m not sure what it serves to have our home addresses as right to know. The fact is that the people who are willing to be public are already in the public domain — you could look us up in the white pages — and those who want to remain private, have unlisted information.”

In recent years, another request for faculty addresses was made by an anti-union organization.

“We didn’t know what he was going to do with them... was he going to send ourneighbors nasty letters about us, was he going to march, publish them… and we were very uncomfortable with that,” Jones said.

Nevertheless, in accordance with the Right to Know Law, faculty addresses were given to the requestor. Jones, however, never noticed anything as a result of this.

“From what I’ve seen, people reacted more to this second request than they did the first,” Wertz said. “I know I filed an objection to the release of my personal information in the first case, and I didn’t have to in the second case because the request was dissolved before it even got to that point, but I would’ve, absolutely.”

Like Wertz, faculty do not have to allow their addresses or other information to be given out because of a request. They have the option to opt-out. To prevent their address from disclosure, faculty members must complete and sign the “Right to Know Law Disclosure of Home Address Exception Request” and submit it to Wayne E. Patterson, Edinboro University acting open records officer at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Reeder Hall, 2nd Floor, 219 Meadville Street, Edinboro, PA 16444. He can be reached at (814) 732-1315 or wepatterson@edinboro.edu.

Those who object to disclosure of their home address must show on this form that releasing their home address “would likely result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to you or to your personal security.” Those who live with a law enforcement officer or judge can object, but Edinboro University’s police officers are automatically excluded.

“It takes into account what they do professionally, but it also takes into account emotional and personal reasons,” Reyes-Cruz said. “It’s definitely important for them to be able to opt-out. There are reasons and we consider all of them.”

Reyes-Cruz wants the faculty to realize that though the recent request was revoked, requests like this may be made in the future. He encourages faculty to turn in their objection forms for instances that may occur later in the semester, and he encourages them to further look into the right to know act, especially Edinboro’s policy.

“Sometimes the initial response is ‘oh great, they are giving out my information, and there is nothing we can do about it,’” Reyes-Cruz said.

“Give me a call. I’ll talk to you about it. I’ll walk you through it…People might have questions, but let us know. Ask. If there is something they want to come over and meet about, I will find answers for you.”

Reyes-Cruz can be reached at (814) 732- 1334, or preyescruz@edinboro.edu.

Tracy Geibel is the Executive Editor for The Spectator and she can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

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