Professor sues Cal Poly over flu preparedness secrecy
November 16, 2014
By KAREN VELIE
A California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo journalism professor has filed an open records suit against the university. Bill Loving, professor and editor of CalCoastNews, is suing to get records about the university’s preparation in the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease on campus.
Loving named Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong and the university as defendants. He is asking for an order of the court to force the release of the records.
“We’re entering the first part of the flu season. That makes information about how the Cal Poly health center is prepared a matter of public interest,” Loving said. “Students have come to me to complain about long waits to be seen by a doctor for minor problems. How then, is the health center going to cope with dozens or hundreds of students who might get sick?”
The library of medicine at the National Institutes of Health has a number of stories about the impact of infectious diseases on campus, Loving wrote in his complaint. Some of the articles referred to the H1N1 influenza of 2009 which swept across many college campuses. Health officials note that meningitis, colds, strep and mononucleosis crop up on college campuses.
The lawsuit began after reporters in one of Loving’s classes began to work on a project about illness, hygiene and preparedness. Reporters sought information from health centers, nursing schools, hospitals and experts on infection. They also requested records citing the California Public Records Act. Each request includes Loving’s name. That lets him take action as soon as a government agencies refuses to release records, he said.
The head of the Health & Counseling Center on campus refused to provide the records of its infection plans even though state law requires that they be open, Loving’s lawsuit says.
The center Medical Director Karen Hord-Sandquist said in an email that the center was not able to provide the materials.
“We are understaffed and have multiple requests for information and interviews from many students and departments. We are unable to provide this service as it impairs our ability to do our work caring for the students we see in this clinic,” Hord-Sandquist wrote.
The fact that the clinic already is understaffed strongly suggests that it would not be able to deal with an infection on campus, Loving said.
“The complaints from students about wait times and the clinic’s admission that it is understaffed raises reasonable questions about how prepared Cal Poly is,” Loving said. “Students, their parents and the public ought to know how the health center will react.”
People ought to be able to see what the plans are, Loving said. The clinic should not be concerned about people seeing what it has planned, they might agree or make suggestions. The alternative is to blindly trust what government says.
“Bureaucrats have long counseled people to ‘be patient’ and ‘trust us’ and in too many instances, that trust has been misplaced as contingency plans have failed,” Loving said. “When those failures take place, it is the people who suffer.”
The attempt to control information is troubling, Loving said, noting in his suit that the health center recently imposed a new policy that places controls on interviews. The health center will consider interviews after reporters send them the list of questions to be asked.
Most troubling is an agreement that the health center asks reporters to sign, Loving said in his lawsuit.
The interview request form would give “an agent” of the health center the power to “review and edit the final product prior to publishing.”
“Not even the president of the United States has the power or the audacity to do something like that,” Loving said. “The center won’t give up records under state law and they want to control what reporters write. It is troubling”
Although Loving named Armstrong as the first defendant, he says he does not believe Armstrong is opposed to transparency.
“What I know of President Armstrong tells me that he wants Cal Poly to be accountable and open,” Loving said. “But he is president of a university and people below him may not share his attitude.”
Loving acknowledged that some people would wonder about a professor suing his university and president. He is not willing to let government agencies and bureaucrats dictate what people can know, he said.
“If I’m willing to sue my boss, my employer, then the bureaucrats ought to ask themselves how much slack I’m going to cut them when they don’t obey the law,” Loving said. “Open records applies to everyone or it applies to no one. Government is the people’s business and, generally, people have the right to see what government does.”
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