An Oklahoma open records expert said he believes OU’s denial of three Daily open records requests goes beyond the scope of the court ruling on which OU has based its denial.
OU has denied The Daily three requests for the names of university employees who are eligible for its Special Voluntary Retirement Incentive. The program encourages eligible employees to retire early and receive a payment equal to a portion of their salaries, and it has now been implemented a second time as a cost-saving measure.
OU denied the records, which it gave to The Daily just one year ago, on the grounds that the ages of employees are protected under the Oklahoma Open Records Act as a personnel record. The records The Daily seeks would show which employees are aged 60 and older — the requirement to be eligible for the early retirement program — but not give the employees’ exact ages.
“It seems that OU now wants to expand (the ruling) to include the idea that you can even determine what the age of an employee is,” said Joey Senat, associate professor at the OSU School of Media and Strategic Communications who is also considered an expert on the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the dates of birth of public employees must be withheld because that information can help one commit identity theft. That ruling, however, does not mention public employees’ ages, let alone the range of employees’ ages.
The Daily seeks this information so that it may independently report on the savings the early retirement program will bring to the university and the consequences that may come with the employees’ retirements. The Daily reported on the information last year and received criticism for its reporting, including a letter to the editor from an institutional research analyst at OU which said the decision to publish was “reckless” and of “little to no journalistic value.”
Senat said the criticisms, in this case, should not be grounds to withhold the records.
“People don’t like information about themselves being released, but there can be a public interest in that,” Senat said. “I think the public interest does outweigh any invasion of privacy that might occur here.”
The Daily has consulted the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal assistance on First Amendment and open records matters, for help in obtaining the information it seeks. Frank LoMonte, director of the SPLC, has drafted a letter to the university asking for the release of the records, which will soon be in the hands of the university.