It’s a John Lennon sort of day today. Everyone searching for some truth.
You’ll notice when you enter the front page of my website, the following statement appears: “(This page does not officially represent Georgia State University or any of the Georgia State University Student Media divisions).” I should add to that “or the University System of Georgia”.
Especially since the students that cross my path on a regular basis occasionally cross the path of the Board of Regents.
One such student is David Schick. Schick contributed a bit to The Signal this year during his transfer year from Georgia Perimeter College to GSU. His work ethic stood out such that USA Today selected him to be their GSU correspondent. However, it’s his time at GPC that remains as pertinent to the present as anything because of an unresolved Open Records Request.
Before transferring to GSU, Schick (then EIC of The Collegian) made a request for 15 budget related documents. As of now, he doesn’t have seven of them. GPC had laid off 282 employees and reports alleged that the school had “overspending for years” thus causing the shortfall precipitating the layoffs (Collegian adviser David Simpson was among the casualties). Schick’s request reflected his journalistic curiosity as to whether or not this allegation was true and if so, how could it have gone on undetected for so long.
That was in July 2012. Today, Schick filed suit against the USG Board of Regents because he still doesn’t have all of the documents he requested.
Open Record Requests are not supposed to simply be a resource for professional journalists: anyone can request them. However, oftentimes, the costs given to requestors can be quite exorbitant. I’ve advised students who have placed ORRs that have resulted in four-figure quotes and that is more likely of a possiblity the more redactions are deemed necessary due to various legal concerns. The original quoted cost of Schick’s ORR began the delays and the new quote remains a sticking point.
The lawsuit is instructive on a few levels:
1) American college journalists shouldn’t just pay attention to what their university administration is doing, they should also be mindful of the systems under which the administrations operate. The one thing I find myself suggesting to my students during teardowns more often than not is “you should call the students at (Somewhere Else in Georgia) University and see if the same thing’s happening there.” And where the public universities are concerned, the USG is the first place to look for why things work the way they work.
2) Open government is messy, whether the facts of the case dictate that it has to be or not (and being 100% fair, I’ve yet to hear USG’s response to the suit). Launching an ORR isn’t activity exclusively reserved for journalists but non-exclusivity doesn’t necessarily dicate ease. Rights to privacy often clash with rights to public information and even after that, debates will arise has to whether or not public officials leverage the perception rights to privacy are in play when they aren’t. (An ongoing controversy in campus journalism is how much FERPA is used and misused in ORRs).
3) This is yet another case that proves that students do have the most important story ideas sometimes. This is not the AJC* or a network affiliate (or even Creative Loafing, though David’s worked there as well) causing such a ruckus, just one journalist on behalf of one student newspaper. That he doesn’t even edit or write for anymore. Students are affected by a lot of things and think that their problems exist on their island, but that island can be exposed to a wider audience if you ask a question or two.
* = One person commenting on an AJC column about the affair writes “I guess that I’m kind of curious as to why a lone student journalist is carrying the spear here. Why has the larger media complex not been all over this like ugly on an ape ?” Eek.
It will be interesting to see how far the case proceeds. There’s interest is in the verdict, yes, but also in the discussion will be on reasonable cost projections on citizen requests and the level of awareness it will create for student journalists on covering their campus budget beats.
Whenever there’s someone saying that we’re not getting enough information, however, there’s someone that thinks we have too much. Nationally, that’s the case with the Edward Snowden case. Snowden’s recent online interview detailing his whistleblowing on the National Security Agency has attracted a lot of buzz. The future doesn’t seem promising for the whistleblower. Snowden must believe as much as his plans essentially involve never setting foot on American soil again. At the time of this entry, he’s fallen off of the planet.
Two takeaways from this?
1) The furor over the PRISM leak seems to reveal that we’re not as “post-post 9/11“*** we think we are. Specifically, it’s interesting that the lines of inappropriateness have been drawn domestically. William Binney worked with the NSA for 28 years but only quit when he felt the surveillance of domestic data got to be too much. Obviously legally, this makes sense: the privacy issue is framed as a constitutional one and the constitution only applies to American citizens. However, no one has asked yet if PRISM’s reach has affected private citizens of other parts of the world whose connections to terrorism would be specious at best. There does seem to be an invisible “othering” in play.
*** = “Post-post-9/11” should be considered a scale rather than an absolute. Just as scholars reminds us that Obama’s 2008 election shouldn’t be treated as a pass/fail inscription of the notion of a “post-racial” society.” There are other elements upon which we can assess 9/11’s effect on social perception and policy beyond suspicion and personal privacy.
2) I wonder if this case is going to make people think twice about how much they voluntarily disclose online. Never mind the companies that try to facilitate our unwitting divulging of information, the social mediation we currently experience leaves a lot of people thinking it doesn’t matter whether people know everything about everyone anyway. So much so that I regularly now see panels at national media conventions where professionals essentially try to shame 18-24 year olds to keep to them damn selves when Twittering and Facebooking. They shame them with “you won’t get hired!” Are we going to transform this into “the government can take everything you did 30 years ago and ruin you?” or will the new generation reply “if anything, I’ve learned I can’t do anything private on the Internet anyways so YaskY?”
Danah Boyd argues that you can’t take refuge in the idea that “I’ve done nothing illegal” because PRISM takes us in a direction that “presumes entire classes and networks of people as suspect” (particularly apt here is her analogy on how we all freak out after doing our taxes and imagining feeling that way all the time). “Nothing to hide” does indeed often fail as logic and it seems like we’re a culture that’s hiding less and less. However, recent scholarship suggests that the more we get into our social media, the more we seek privacy out. If that research is indicative of our behaviour, you can expect us to be outraged about PRISM for a long, long time.
Speaking of hiding, I wonder where Manning is these days.
No, not Bradley Manning (though that’s very directly relevant). Preston Manning.
Remember Preston Manning? The squeaky voiced idealist who emerged from the Canadian Praries in the late-80s with a message of populism, more provincial equality, less wasteful spending and what not? The man who was vocal in an anti-establishment charge against the Charlottetown Accord that taught Canadians you could beat all the major parties in one referendum?***** And the man who took the Reform Party from the fringes to the opposition benches, which led the way to a merger with the Tories that left the Liberal Party in shambles?
***** = I struggle to imagine the U.S. voting populace being given a chance to smack both the Republicans and Democrats in the face as mightily as Canada smacked the three major parties in the face in 1992.
I lie when I paint a portrait of Manning literally hiding. He was seen only weeks ago denying that his non-profit organization is fronting a movement to undermine the current mayor of Calgary. And he’s still beating a familar drum from 20 years past, reforming the Canadian Senate.
However, I still feel like the old Preston is hiding when I see the latest news about Conservative tumult. The Reform Party was never very popular east of Manitoba and social progressives absolutely bristled at the thought of their taking charge. However, there seemed to be a general consensus that one upside to Manning’s movement succeeding would be an increase in accountability and information. The Liberals had turned off even many of its own voters with its image of an arrogant, power-entitled group oblivious to its own scandals and Jean Chretien was frequently criticized for centralizing too much of the power to the office of the Prime Minister.
Now Stephen Harper is arguably the most power-centralized Prime Minister in Canada’s history and it’s starting to take its toll on the party. Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber departed in a huff and reports indicate that the grumblings of Defence Minister Peter MacKay are getting louder. The Senate remains unchanged, unabolished and the accounting of a Conservative senator’s expenses is now an issue. The Office of the Auditor General– an office designed to corral overspending which was the biggest Reform pet peeve of all– is constantly in disagreement with the CPC. It’s a far cry from what the Reform Party projected on a mount of Western alienation in a not-too-distant past. Which is puzzling since some people were quick to trumpet the 2011 election out as a realization of Manning’s work– not the least of which Manning himself.
The press is positioning this as a populist vs. moderate fight and that seems half-right. How “moderate” Rathgeber or MacKay or anyone else is or isn’t on social issues hasn’t publicly frothed to the surface as a source of discontent yet. However, there is one very simple strain of populism clashing with moderate politics. Moderate politics dictates that what is electorally successful is too some degree justified. However, many within the conservative movement are concerned because, majority or not, as one blogger puts it, “Surely Conservatives deserve a party that is bigger than one man—i.e., Stephen Harper”.
When these “new” Conservatives came to town, there’d be more accountability and the Prime Minister, even if you disagreed with his policies, wouldn’t be so power mad. You could ask questions in the House of Commons with less fear of blowback within your own party if you didn’t tow the line. The CPC that voters encounter now is certainly a far cry from the Liberals on economic issues and some social issues (though they’ve yet to touch gay marriage despite the worst fears of progressive voters). However, it has done nothing substantial to tackle the Senate issue and it’s created an image that only the Prime Minister is in a position to comment on anything.
It hasn’t taken on the level of the mid-2000s Liberals yet and some columnists argue that all of this hubbub can only strengthen Harper’s resolve for 2015. Still, regular deficits, quibbles with the Auditor General and Mike Duffy overspending? I can only imagine if there still is a 1992 Preston Manning hiding somewhere, clutching a Social Credit pamphlet and shrieking in horror.
All I can say, is that it’s enough to make this whole “transparency” thing catch fire.