Posts Tagged ‘Black Hole Award’

Oklahoma State University wins SPJ’s National Black Hole Award

Oklahoma State University made history by becoming the first university to win SPJ’s not-so-coveted Black Hole Award.

The Cowboys were nominated by Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, for several offenses against open government, such as classifying parking tickets as information protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and identifying a sexual assault as a burglary on a Clery Act report.

But what put Oklahoma State over the top (or into the gutter, depending on your perspective), was its decision to hide behind FERPA to protect the “privacy” of a suspected serial sexual predator. OSU had four verified complaints from students at a fraternity that they were sexually assaulted by another student, yet the university did not notify police or alert students to the potential predator in their midst.

Instead, OSU handled the matter through a closed-door administrative hearing. University officials defended the action on the grounds that FERPA barred them from revealing the suspect’s name, even to the police.

FERPA was meant to protect academic records — college applications, test scores and transcripts — from prying eyes. It was not meant to be a “Harry Potter”-like cloak that hides any scrap of paper that contains a student’s name.

Oklahoma State now joins a rouge’s gallery that includes the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services, and the Georgia, Wisconsin and Utah legislatures. The Utah Legislature had the distinction of winning the first national Black Hole award for railroading through the infamous HB477 in 2011, which would have gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act.

That bill was repealed amid public fury, a petition drive to put legislation repealing the bill on the next ballot, front-page editorials in the state’s largest newspaper denouncing the bill and the national publicity generated by the Black Hole award.

Nominate worst agency for new Black Hole Award! (due Feb. 28)

The Society of Professional Journalists is soliciting nominations for a new award this year, the Black Hole Award, which will be awarded during national Sunshine Week in March. Nominations are due Feb. 28!

The Black Hole serves as the counterpoint to the SPJ  Sunshine Award, highlighting a particularly heinous violation of the public’s right to know. By exposing the bad actors, we hope to educate members of the public to their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with the people’s right to acquire government information so that they may hold their elected officials accountable and enhance self-governance.

(Note that this new nationally focused effort was inspired by the Utah Headliners, SPJ’s state chapter, which has been giving out its own state Black Hole Award for quite some time.)

Here are the conditions nomination should meet:

1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This would mean either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example, conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, e-mail discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.

2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. There needs to be a demonstration that this was not an isolated incident or done in relative ignorance. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. We want to avoid using the award to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Essentially we want to see a case where their withholding the information hurt the general public rather than an individual, or its release would further public welfare.

The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee is doing this with a really tight deadline this year, hoping we can announce the “winner” during Sunshine Week. We would appreciate it you would send us information about any “outstanding” candidates you are aware of.

Deadline for nominations is Monday, Feb. 28. If possible, nominations should include, where possible, supporting documentation to allow SPJ to determine if the criteria have been met. The documentation can include any of the following, although the more documentation the better:

• News coverage of the violation.

• Public records chronicling the dispute.

• Legal papers if there was a lawsuit or other legal action involved in the matter.

• Any expert opinion from an attorney, official or open-government expert that the violation occurred.

• Contact information for the parties involved to allow the committee to obtain more information if needed, including from the government official.

Please email nominations to SPJ FOI Committee member Mike Farrell,,

UPDATE [2/23/11]: This post was corrected to reflect that the SPJ Sunshine Award is not given out during national Sunshine Week. The due date for that award is March 18. It will be presented at an awards banquet at the Excellence in Journalism 2011 conference.


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