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A reporter's fight over red tape and 20 cents at Cal State

It was a simple request for a copy of an email. But the effort got bogged down in Cal State's demand for payment via check only — of 20 cents.

October 21, 2012|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times

A reporter at the Mustang Daily — the student newspaper at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — wanted a copy of an email for a story. He filed a California Public Records Act request with the chancellor's office in Long Beach but he didn't get it.

Why? University officials said that although Sean McMinn's request fell under the law, he would have to pay 20 cents — by check — to have the email forwarded to him.

McMinn was working on a story about the university system reminding professors that it was inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal to inform students about how politics, specifically Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax measure, would affect the Cal State system.

The story hinged on an email sent by Cal State Chancellor Charles Reed to university presidents that explained the issue.

Because McMinn, a junior studying journalism, knew the email was sent from an official university account, he figured it would be a public record and asked for a copy from the Cal State office of public affairs.

Officials there said the email could not be released because of Cal State policy.

Undeterred, McMinn filed a formal records request, contending that Reed's email fell under the California Public Records Act.

Cal State relented and notified McMinn that he could schedule a meeting at Cal State headquarters in Long Beach to review the document or have the one-page email sent to him electronically — for 20 cents.

Weighing a four-hour drive to Long Beach against two dimes, he quickly opted to get it emailed. "We're in San Luis Obispo," he said. "That's not exactly close by."

He offered to use a credit or debit card but was told the office does not accept either — only a check.

Knowing that writing a check through the newspaper's state account could take days and facing a deadline, he offered to have a friend in Long Beach drop off a quarter at the headquarters, but was again told it would not be accepted.

They were at an impasse.

Cal State spokeswoman Claudia Keith said that with the large amounts of public records act requests the office receives, it tries to follow a consistent policy of securing payment before releasing documents — which is standard procedure among public agencies, she said.

It is not, however, against policy to waive the fee.

"But we'd have to decide why we were making an exception," she said. "We get hundreds of these requests."

She also noted that not all emails sent from an official university account are considered public record.

McMinn said the university system failed at its mission — of serving students, citizens and taxpayers of California — over 20 cents.

"It's strange, this is the university that we're attending, their mission is to educate us and support research," he said. "It's a record we know is public and they know is public."

As for the email, McMinn scrambled and found a source who forwarded him a copy — just before deadline.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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