OU President Joseph Harroz said administration is meeting to evaluate a university-wide mask mandate and discussed concerns regarding OU’s open records office in a Thursday media law class guest lecture.
On Sept. 1, Oklahoma District Court Judge Natalie Mai issued a temporary injunction against Senate Bill 658 which will remain until a permanent hearing by a permanent injunction court hearing takes place or a higher court takes action. In response, Harroz said he planned to meet with administration later Thursday afternoon to evaluate a mask mandate and how the injunction affects OU.
OU currently interprets Oklahoma Senate Bill 658 and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Executive Order 2021-16 as barring it from requiring masks and vaccines. University policy “strongly encourages” masking indoors and in high-density settings.
A group of OU law faculty — including OU law professor Joseph Thai — compiled a report before the fall semester began stating the two laws do not prohibit OU or its departments and faculty from requiring masking, but only prevents OU from adopting narrow mask mandates targeting unvaccinated students.
On Aug. 20, OU Senior Vice President and Provost André-Denis Wright announced if a student in a class tests positive for COVID-19, that class can continue to meet in person by instituting a two-week masking policy. Wright wrote this policy is “within the boundaries of the law.”
Harroz said Thursday the university’s belief is once there’s a positive COVID-19 case in a classroom, the nature of what’s allowed changes.
In an email to The Daily, Thai wrote Monday there is “no exception” in SB 658 or Stitt’s executive order that allows mask mandates when there is a confirmed COVID-19 case in a classroom.
“If OU now believes it can legally mandate masking — as OU law faculty have explained — it should require masking not only after students get sick, but also before, to prevent infection in the first place,” Thai wrote.
Harroz also discussed the speed in which open records requests are filled, explaining the university receives thousands of open records requests. He said as the number of requests increases, positions need to be added to the Open Records office, but employees are difficult to attract.
News outlets have entered lawsuits against OU for withholding records they believe are included in the state Open Records Act. NonDoc, for example, filed a lawsuit in June to the Cleveland County District Court asking a judge to release Jones Day records related to investigations of former OU President David Boren for sexual misconduct and misreported donor data.
In the lecture, Harroz also discussed the preservation of democracy and the importance of understanding other views. He said law and journalism are “first-cousins” and “critically important” to society.
“If you can capture the press, then you can control the collective thought,” Harroz said. “You can make people distrust the journalists and discredit them.”
Harroz said people must understand the law and the institutions that can impact whether or not the law is upheld. He cited a 2017 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center which found 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of the U.S. government.
“You have to know that power unchecked is the biggest threat,” Harroz said. “The role of the media is to make sure the power is checked and to make sure that those that form this democracy … have the information they need and the influence they need to understand what is right and wrong.”