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UMW won't release call
UMW won't release recording of President Judy Hample's emergency test

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Date published: 2/2/2010

BY JEFF BRANSCOME

The University of Mary Washington has classified President Judy Hample's emergency call to campus police last fall as "evidence related to a criminal investigation," even though it was a test.

That's the reason UMW gave for declining a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request by The Free Lance-Star to obtain a copy of the recording of Hample's call--made during a campus safety walk in September.

However, several experts on public records disagree with the university's interpretation of the law.

"If it didn't end up being a criminal matter, then it ain't a criminal investigation," said Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

She called UMW's reason for withholding the record a "broad reading" of the law. "FOIA requires a narrow construction of any exemption from disclosure," Everett wrote. The council is a state agency that provides advisory opinions and training to state and local government officials, citizens groups and the media.

At the time of the incident, university police didn't know Hample's call from an emergency phone at the campus parking deck was a test. She reported that a man was preventing her from entering her car, and he may have a gun, witnesses said.

Torre Meringolo, UMW's vice president for advancement and university relations, noted that police responded as if a crime were in progress.

Hample's call, he said, "would've been evidence used in any criminal investigation, should it have gone further." Asked whether Hample was under a criminal investigation, he said no.

Some in the college community have characterized Hample's test as filing a false report and said she jeopardized student safety.

Others applauded her efforts to gauge police response times.

FOIA experts question the university's decision not to release the call, regardless of what people think of Hample's methods.

Ed Jones, editor of The Free Lance-Star, asked the university in an e-mail to reconsider its denial of the newspaper's request.

" The university's reasoning strikes me as being contrary to the spirit and letter of the FOI Act," he wrote. "After all, how can it be claimed that the unfounded call is part of a criminal investigation when it has been stated clearly that no crime was being committed against the caller?"


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UMW's response to The Free Lance-Star's Freedom of Information Act Request:

The Freedom of Information Act (Act) lists certain exclusions from the chapter, which permit agencies to withhold certain records. The records you have requested are excluded from the provisions of the Act. Specifically, Va. Code Ann. 2.2-3706(F)(1) excludes "complaints, memoranda, correspondence, case files or reports, witness statements, and evidence relating to a criminal investigation or prosecution, other than criminal incident information as defined in subsection A." There is one record, an audio recording, that meets the description of your request for "copies of the recordings." However, your request falls within the exclusion of 2.2-3706(F)(1), because it is evidence related to a criminal investigation. As a result, the records you requested are being entirely withheld.