Judge: UT must release records

Ruling paves way for student newspaper to get information about surveillance cameras

By Erik Rodriguez
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, March 1, 2003

A state district judge this week threw out the University of Texas' lawsuit blocking the release of information about surveillance cameras on campus.

The University of Texas might appeal the Thursday ruling by Judge Paul Davis, university officials said Friday.

Patricia Ohlendorf, UT's vice president for legal affairs, said university and UT System officials will meet next week to discuss the lawsuit UT filed against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in January. The suit challenged an open records decision made by Abbott requiring UT to provide the student newspaper, The Daily Texan, detailed information about its use of campus security cameras.

"Because we feel very strongly, there is a good chance we will appeal, but we need to look at our legal options," Ohlendorf said.

Last October, the Texan requested information regarding the locations, technical specifications and contract information for surveillance cameras used by UT police at the Austin campus and the Pickle Research Center. The Texan sought similar information from the City of Austin. UT and the city sued Abbott after his office ruled that the information is public and must be released.

On Thursday, Davis officially approved a motion for summary judgment against UT, writing in his dismissal that "the information at issue is not subject to any exemption under the Public Information Act."

Ohlendorf disagreed, saying she contested Abbott's conclusion that the information should not be exempted from release because the records in question are not used by law enforcement.

"We think it is a very significant issue, and we continue to feel strongly that information about security cameras and devices should be confidential," she said. She noted that top administrators did not discuss the ruling this week because they were too busy.

Ryan Pittman, managing editor of the Texan, said he thinks a UT appeal would be unsuccessful and would only further delay the release of the information.

"The university is publicly funded, and the university spends those public funds on surveillance cameras," he said. "We feel the public should have a right to know how much money they spend on it, who they contract with and the general location of those cameras."

In recent months, the Texan has run stories about university surveillance, and the newspaper's open records requests and subsequent lawsuits have helped raise awareness about the issue, Pittman said.

Davis' ruling also calls into question what will happen with the city's lawsuit, which is similar to UT's. Angela Hale, an Abbott spokeswoman, said the attorney general has not yet decided whether to file a motion for summary judgment in that case. The city also could decide to drop its suit, she said.

The city attorney's office did not return calls Friday.

This is the first major case in which Abbott has asserted an aggressive policy regarding open records. Abbott campaigned on a platform of open government.

"In these times, where people and different agencies are trying to use homeland security as an excuse to close information, he believes it's critical that he keeps information open to the public," Hale said.

erodriguez@statesman.com; 445-3673