Lifting the lid: A court ruling offers hope on Pa. university records

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A Commonwealth Court ruling issued last week could pull back the curtain that shields Pennsylvania's state-related universities from provisions of the state open records law.

That would be good news, but not good enough.

A Penn State alumnus sought records that then-Education Secretary Ron Tomalis received as an ex-officio member of the university's board of trustees, correspondence regarding the school's reaction to the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case. The state's Office of Open Records denied the request because Penn State -- like the University of Pittsburgh and Temple and Lincoln universities -- is not one of the agencies subject to the law and only limited financial records are covered by it.

The office made a similar ruling when the Post-Gazette sought similar information from Gov. Tom Corbett in his capacity as a Penn State board member.

But Commonwealth Court said the Tomalis decision was wrong and denial of the records premature. The court said serving on the board is a requirement for both the education secretary and the governor, and that Mr. Tomalis received the records in his capacity as head of a state agency. That could make the records subject to the open records law. The court sent the case back to the Open Records office for a decision on the merits of the request.

The court's decision pushes toward more public access to university records, which is a positive development. However, a better outcome would be changes in the law itself.

Pennsylvania's four state-related universities receive hundreds of millions of direct taxpayer support every year. Applying the open records law to them more broadly is a logical extension of the rules that already cover the 14 state-owned universities, governmental offices, local municipalities and school districts and other public agencies.

Commonwealth Court's decision ultimately could provide more access to university records than are available now. State lawmakers can and should do better by revising the law so it applies fully to Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln.

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