Deadspin Crowdsourcing Its FOIA Efforts To Route Around Silly State-Residents-Only Rules

Frankly, it was only a matter a time before this came to be. Two years or so ago, Mike wrote a piece about a Supreme Court ruling that gave the go-ahead to the state of Virginia to descriminate in its response to FOIA requests based on state residency. The state law that allowed Virginia to flatly refuse to comply with transparency requests from non-state residents was curious as a matter of good governance and was heralded by some, including Mike, as being a potential roadblock to national media, especially new media, to reporting on the goings on in the many states of our blessed union. The internet and new media, as perhaps should have been obvious, have their ways of routing around all this silliness.

Here to show how it’s done is Deadspin, who filed an FOIA request in Tennessee, which has similar descrimantory FOIA policies, for emails between the University of Tennessee and Nike. This all stemmed from a rather banal situation going on at the school in which most of the women’s teams are being rebranded from “Lady Vols” to simply “Volunteers” like the men’s teams. This change in branding curiously came at the same time the school dropped its partnership with Adidas and switched to Nike, so Deadspin wanted to find out if there was some kind of influence being wielded by Nike over female athletic programs at a public university. So they filed for the FOIA request.

It was soon followed by a rejection letter … because I’m not a Tennessee resident. As it stands, Tennessee’s state laws only give the right to review records to “any citizen of this state.” I am not a citizen of the state, and therefore they can tell me (and whoever else doesn’t live in Tennessee, which includes everyone who works at Deadspin) to bugger off. Is this legal? Apparently so.

There’s only one word for describing this way of thinking: garbage. Why don’t they just put a sign at the Tennessee border saying, “Nothing to see here, please turn around”? Or just change the name of the Tennessee Open Records Act to the Tennessee Kinda-Sorta-Maybe-If-We-Like-You Records Act? Of just amend the text of the law to read, “Nah, fuck you”? Functionally, this just seems like a fantastic tool for ensuring national media can only give you glowing coverage—any documented verification is impossible, unless they want to give it to you.

That sentiment of frustration has been shared by numerous national blogs and media, including this one, if mildly so, several years back. It’s a sense of the game being over if you don’t happen to be a resident of the state in question. This, as it should be obvious, violates the spirit of the FOIA as a general tool for transparency, but what can you do? The Supreme Court ruled form on high, right?

Of course not. If new media should be linked to citizen journalism and blogs in particular embrace their readerships and communities as information sources, this is a non-problem. Deadspin sees it similarly in a post entitled “Tennessee Won’t Give Us Nike’s Emails; Maybe They’ll Give Them To You.”

But, hey, we’ve got readers everywhere, right? So I’m asking all of you, residents of Tennessee, to submit a public records request for me, if you don’t mind. I’m putting a copy of my entire public records request below. Or, hey, come up with your own version if you’ve got a better idea for one. If you hear back from Tennessee, please let me know: diana@deadspin.com.

It’s a wondeful tactic, and one completely in line with the idea of new media and citizen journalism, not to mention community participation amongst the readership. Too bad the University of Tennessee is apparently looking to play extremely dumb with the crowdsourced requests.

Everybody got the exact same answer: a copy of the Nike branding audit and nothing else. Not a single email. Not one text message. Not even a lonely memo, draft, or letter… a return that ignores what we asked for and goes against what logic suggests is the mountain of paperwork generated when a billion-dollar university system interacts with a billion-dollar company. There are only two ways this is possible:

1. Nike intentionally conducted all business with Tennessee only over the phone or in person, specifically to keep everything out of the public record.

2. The University of Tennessee is telling us to go fuck ourselves.

The wonderful part about the school attempting to route around these valid requests this way is that even by winning, the university still loses. Now there’s zero doubt something shady is going on here. Either the school is refusing to comply with an FOIA request, or it is hiding its dealings in places it thinks the light of day will never shine. Either way, interest is only piqued further, rather than being sated.

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