Isn't the University of Missouri in the Show Me State?

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I traveled to the lovely Boone County Courthouse in Columbia, Missouri on Monday in the hopes of getting our lawsuit against the University of Missouri (MU) resolved. Instead, I got another dose of legal absurdity.

Like a number of public institutions across the country, MU claims the syllabi we use for rating teacher prep are copyrighted by the faculty and therefore not subject to open records laws. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument can only mean one of two things: either syllabi at public universities are not public records or open records laws are meaningless.

Here's the basic fact about copyright: everyone is assumed to enjoy copyright protections for any document they author unless the document is being created for some other person or organization. So MU could certainly try to claim that faculty are not creating the syllabi as part of their official, publicly funded duties of teaching college students, but that would beg the question of why virtually all professors feel obliged to do so. 

If MU contends that the syllabi are indeed public but nonetheless exempt under open records law, then they are in effect arguing for the evisceration of open records laws. Under MU's theory, any public employee could claim that he or she is the author of a document and therefore can exercise exclusive rights of ownership and distribution over it. But then journalists, researchers and the public at large would be denied the right to know how their government actually functions -- which is the whole point of sunshine laws in the first place.

In court, MU's attorney did not budge from his arguments. Nor would he agree to a reasonable settlement along the lines as two other Missouri public institutions who have provided us with syllabi -- a settlement that would reaffirm faculty copyright protections as well as the right of the public to know more about the institutions that prepare public school teachers. Instead, he stood on procedure and demanded a trial.

Despite a recent resolution of the University of Missouri Student Association calling for all course syllabi to be made public, despite a judgment we won in a virtually identical court case in Minnesota, MU continues to expend scarce resources on a case that it has little chance of winning.