Naked City

Cameras: Into the Courtroom

As expected, "homeland security" and the public's right and need to know have butted heads, and Austin has become one of the battlegrounds. Last fall, an investigative reporter with The Daily Texan presented UT and the city of Austin with open-records requests for the locations, recording hours, and technical specifications of surveillance cameras used by UT and Austin police. Both requests also sought info regarding contracts with the security-system providers.

Both UT and the city sought Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's opinion, hoping he would allow them to refuse the requests, but Abbott sided with the student journalists and in January ordered both entities to release the info. Both the city and UT have now sued Abbott to keep the info secret, citing law-enforcement exemptions in the state's open-records law.

"We have no objection to letting them look at the contracts, but we object to giving out locations, hours of operation, and technical specs," says David Smith, the chief of litigation in the city's Law Dept. "Under the Bioterrorism Act ... municipalities are supposed to identify and protect for risks. In both law enforcement and homeland security it defeats the purpose of surveillance cameras if you give out the location, the hours of operation, and how they work."

Patricia Ohlendorf, UT vice-president for institutional relations and legal affairs, says that UT police advised university administrators that revealing locations would interfere with UTPD's ability to keep the campus safe. "We take physical security steps for events on campus, but we don't have the ability to have live law enforcement at everything," she said.

Abbott spokeswoman Angela Hale says, "They're trying to use the law enforcement exemption, and it doesn't fall under that." Asked about the two entities' homeland security concerns, Hale said, "Texas doesn't have a homeland security exemption. States have to pass laws to provide that exemption. At this time in Texas law, there is no such exemption."

Daily Texan Managing Editor Ryan D. Pittman says UT and the city's concerns are overblown: "We wanted to get a sense of how much they are investing in surveillance cameras, who they contract with, and how many hours they are recording. It's not our goal to locate and map out every single one, our goal is to get a general idea of where they are located ... their proliferation."

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