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Pending Open Records Case

As public bodies, school districts are required to comply with Open Records Act requests. Because I get quite a few questions about records requests, a recent court case involving the Act caught my attention. Although it did not involve a school, the final outcome of that case could affect schools’ responses to such requests in the future.

In summer 2019, a Marquette University journalism and media studies professor, as part of a graduate project, asked the Custer County Sheriff’s office to provide him with certain police records by email in PDF format. In response to the request, the sheriff’s office gathered the records and made them available at their office in Arapaho but declined to email them. Thus began the controversy.

Here’s why: Specifically, the Act requires “prompt, reasonable access” to public records. However, it does not specify the particular form in which a records request must be provided but rather states, “All records of public bodies and public officials shall be open to any person for inspection, copying, or mechanical reproduction during regular business hours…”  

The professor, A. Jay Wagner, sued the sheriff, asserting that requiring the professor to travel from Wisconsin to Oklahoma for the records essentially denied him access to them, thus violating the Open Records Act. Custer County District Court Judge Jill Weedon ruled in favor of the sheriff’s office, concluding that the Oklahoma Open Records Act doesn’t mandate that records be provided in the requestor’s chosen format. While Judge Weedon admitted that emailing the documents would indeed be more efficient, she stated that the matter was one for the legislature—not the courts—to remedy if need be. 

Wagner appealed the ruling, and the Oklahoma State Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case for review on an accelerated docket. I will follow this one and report back after the Court issues its ruling. In the meantime, if you’d like to review the lower court docket, here’s the link: A. Jay Wagner v. Office of Custer County Sheriff

Terri Thomas

Director, Legal Services

Terri Thomas serves as Director of Legal Services for OPSRC. Ms. Thomas is an attorney practicing exclusively in the area of Oklahoma school law, with a primary focus on rural and smaller school districts. Prior to OPSRC, she served as legal counsel for the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools (OROS).

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