Sunday, May 26

Editorial: UCLA’s stonewalling of records requests toes line of illegality


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UCLA is in the crosshairs of yet another lawsuit – something it could have avoided if only it had known the meaning of the word “promptly.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech rights at colleges, filed a lawsuit in March against UCLA to force it to comply with a records request. The organization requested the university release the communications it had regarding the release of a video of United States Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin’s 2018 speech on campus. But more than a year later, UCLA still hasn’t provided these records per the California Public Records Act, and has extended the expected date of the release five times.

This is hardly the first time UCLA has stonewalled an organization on a records request. In 2015, The San Diego Union-Tribune made a records request to release communications between UCLA and the California Public Utilities Commission, which was then under investigation. UCLA delayed the request for nearly a year while giving unconvincing reasons for the delay, according to the newspaper.

But the university is fooling no one with these flimsy excuses. This lawsuit, in context of the university’s troubled history, presents an obvious trend: UCLA Records Management & Information Practices has acted in an obstructionist nature and is clearly violating California law.

Surprisingly, the university – a public institution – seems to care little.

Even when it cares to not ignore records requests, the university tends to provide fragmented and incomplete accounts of the requested information. In 2016, Reveal, an investigative journalism organization, asked UCLA for a squad list of all sports teams, including the rowing team. UCLA provided it with the list, but with everything redacted. The university argued it could not disclose the names of players – most of whom were already listed online – to protect their privacy. Only when Reveal pushed back did UCLA provide the list of names.

The Daily Bruin itself has experienced firsthand the opaque nature of UCLA Records Management & Information Practices. In 2013, The Bruin requested communications UCLA Health made with officials in Malawi, which outlaws homosexuality but has strong research ties with the university. The emails came more than a year later. In 2016, when The Bruin requested records pertaining to UCLA Health employees, the office delayed the request and then didn’t bother to give an update for when the request would be filled.

Over a four-day period in January 2018, The Bruin requested UCLA’s emergency management procedures and communications from Chancellor Gene Block and Michael Beck, the administrative vice chancellor. Fifteen months later, the paper has so far only received a single, easily producible document containing UCLA’s evacuation policies despite such a simple request.

It’s painfully obvious the university has a pervasive culture of stonewalling. Searching for email communications, listing players’ names and redacting sensitive information shouldn’t take 13 months and shouldn’t involve blacking out everything.

And yet UCLA Records Management & Information Practices repeatedly stumbles over itself and does just that, making it hard to believe it actually makes an effort to produce requested documents and abide by state law.

The fact remains: California law specifically states public institutions should promptly make records available. Taxpayer dollars go toward this university, and failing to comply with Californians’ calls for transparency is, put bluntly, illegal.

It doesn’t take a pricey lawsuit and a judge to know that. But administrators could use the lesson.

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