Court ruling may open access to records from state-related schools

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A Penn State University alumnus seeking records about how the school reacted to the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal Friday won an appellate court victory that could have broad open-records implications for certain schools, including the University of Pittsburgh.

In an opinion released today, Commonwealth Court said the state Office of Open Records erred in 2012 when it dismissed Ryan Bagwell's appeal after the state Department of Education refused to turn over various records.

Mr. Bagwell had asked for emails, letters, reports and other materials received in 2012 by then-Education Secretary Ronald J. Tomalis in his capacity as an ex officio member of Penn State's board of trustees.

The open-records office said it did not have jurisdiction because the information did not qualify as records as defined under the state Right-to-Know Law, and Penn State was not a covered agency under the law.

Penn State, Pitt, Temple University and Lincoln University are defined as state-related institutions which are obligated under the open-records law to provide only limited financial information.

But the court disagreed with the Office of Open Records' interpretation. It reversed the decision and sent the case back to the open-records office for review.

"This really gives people at least some kind of window into the operations of these boards, which are allowed to operate in virtual secrecy," Mr. Bagwell, 34, said Friday.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, agreed and hailed the court's decision.

"This is certainly a victory for public access," Ms. Melewsky said. "I think it has a tremendous potential to impact the means by which the public holds the state-related institutions accountable."

Ms. Melewsky cautioned, however, that the decision does not actually grant access to any records. Rather it puts the determination of Mr. Bagwell's access back in the hands of the Office of Open Records.

Now the office will have to address the other arguments raised by the Education Department about why the information should not be released under the state Right-to-Know Law, such as claims that it is protected by attorney-client privilege and pertains to a non-criminal investigation.

Terry Mutchler, the office's executive director, says she is ready to tackle the case anew and welcomed the court's guidance.

"Any time that the court corrects us in a more pro-open government fashion, I'm in," Ms. Mutchler said. "It's an important case, and we're looking forward to digging into it once we get it back."

Penn State had no comment through its spokesman, David La Torre.

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