Q&A: Student seeks public records


From the Indiana Daily Student (Indiana University):

Q: I’m working on two stories that have run into some serious complications in the matter of public records. First is a project on alcohol-related student deaths that I am working on. I have been researching all alcohol-related deaths at the school since 2000. To ensure that I have the circumstances of each death in the story 100 percent accurate, I have requested autopsy and toxicology reports for each student. Coroner Nicole Meyer flat out denied those requests. Are autopsy or toxicology reports public records?

The second story is looking into how students’ opinions play a role in university decisions. We want to see how often our president, provost and dean of students actually meet with students.

To do this, we requested their meeting schedules for the 2012-13 school year. Our request was denied on the basis of a 2005 opinion by the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s Office that schedules were included in an exemption for “diaries, journals, or other personal notes serving as the functional equivalent of a diary or journal.”

Do you think that is a lawful denial?

A: Autopsy reports and accompanying toxicology reports fall under the term “investigatory records” in the Access to Public Records Act.

This means the coroner has the discretion to release them or keep them confidential. But for your purposes, you may not have to rely on convincing the coroner that she should release the information to benefit the community good.

If a coroner conducts an autopsy, she is required to create a coroner’s report. [See IC 36-2-14-8.]

This report must be made available to the public for inspection and copying and must include the cause of death, manner of death, and mechanism of death.

I would think alcohol would be mentioned if it played a part in the death. So ask for the coroner’s report for each student, not the autopsy or toxicology reports.

As to schedules or desk calendars, unfortunately, the public access counselor opinion does hurt you.

Again this is a discretionary area, so there’s nothing to prevent them from sharing the information.

You could ask them for a redacted version showing only appointments with students, eliminating portions that they feel are equivalent to a diary or journal.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at (317) 624-4427.