Sunshine Week: ‘Outdated’ law used to prevent release of collision reports to TU student journalists

Sunshine Week, which runs from March 12 to March 17 this year, was first launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to promote dialogue about the importance of government transparency and freedom of information. Since then, it has been held annually in March, marked by news outlets featuring stories on government transparency and freedom of information.

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Tulsa Police. Courtesy NewsOn6
The Tulsa Police Department denied a request by the University of Tulsa’s student newspaper, the Collegian, seeking traffic accident reports in a specific location over the span of a few days. Their reasoning was that the publication did not meet the definition of a newspaper.

On March 1, TPD responded to the request by citing Oklahoma statutes that appear to exempt the Collegian and many other online or free-to-access publications from obtaining traffic reports that are readily available to most newspapers, radio and TV stations.

The law cited by TPD states that collision reports shall be kept confidential for a period of 60 days after the date of the collision with the exception of the parties involved in the collision, their legal representatives, law enforcement, the Department of Transportation, insurance agents or insurers of the involved parties, prosecutorial authorities, private investigators and certain news organizations.

Qualifying news organizations include radio or television broadcasters and newspapers that meet provisions to publish legal notices, as defined in Section 106 of Title 25 of the Oklahoma Statutes.

Section 106 of Title 25 of the Oklahoma Statutes states:

“A legal newspaper of the county is any newspaper which, during a period of one hundred four (104) consecutive weeks immediately prior to the first publication of such notice, advertisement, or publication:

1. has maintained a paid general subscription circulation in the county; and
2. has been admitted to the United States mails as paid second-class mail matter; and
3. has been continuously and uninterruptedly published in the county.”

This definition excludes online publications, which haven’t been admitted as paid second-class mail matter, and free publications, which haven’t maintained a paid general subscription.

If this law is consistently applied, local publications like the Frontier, the Tulsa Voice and Oklahoma Watch should not be able to access traffic reports. However, The Frontier has successfully filed open records requests for and obtained traffic reports in the past.

“Legal newspapers” as outlined in the above statute are intended as appropriate mediums for the publication of legal advertisements and notices.

None of the Oklahoma Statutes except Title 47, Section 40-102(A)(2) use the definition of a “legal newspaper” to limit access to information.

Of the 542 instances of the word “newspaper” found in a search of provisions on the Oklahoma Statutes website, 79 reference a “legal newspaper” and of these, only 32 reference Title 25, Section 106 specifically.

Of those that use the word “newspaper,” the majority use it to require a governmental or non-governmental organization to provide notice of something to a newspaper of general circulation in the relevant county or municipality.

Nearly all that use the term “legal newspaper” or cite Title 25, Section 106 reference the definition in the context of posting a legal notice or advertisement.

Joey Senat of Oklahoma State University, an expert in Oklahoma mass communication law and freedom of information law, said the law is unnecessary and uses an outdated definition to restrict access to information.

“The statute is so old, it doesn’t take into account online news organizations,” Senat said. “That’s one problem. And college newspapers who don’t publish or publish regularly over the summer are being stopped from obtaining information other newspapers can get.”

Senat said the legislation was apparently intended to stop Tulsa publications that were quickly gathering collision report information and selling it to a subscriber list of lawyers and doctors.

At the time the provision was introduced, state law already prohibited using information on traffic reports to solicit a “professional, business, or commercial relationship,” making the definition laid out in Title 25, Section 106 redundant for that particular purpose, Senat said.

“It discriminates against college newspapers and against online news organizations. And certainly both of those groups have a strong public interest in obtaining that information and reporting on it,” Senat said. “The legislature needs to certainly change that statute.”

In a statement, Collegian advisor Dan Bewley said, “The Tulsa Police Department is a public entity and funded by the taxpayers. The business it conducts serves in the interest of the Tulsa community. For the department to obviously look for a reason to decline to share information with the Collegian is just plain wrong.”

“TPD has the responsibility to provide records and information that fall under the Open Records Act. Its actions in this case to attempt to decide whether the Collegian falls under an arcane definition of a newspaper are a blatant attempt to circumvent state law. The Collegian and taxpayers deserve to be treated better,” he said.

Tulsa Police Officer Roger Norman, who handles the department’s open records requests, said TPD could not voluntarily release the information due to the nature of the law.

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