U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear access case
OHIO — In an unexpected about face, Miami University of Ohio asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a decision that the university must turn over campus disciplinary records involving campus crime. The Supreme Court refused to review the case in early December.
The appeal was the result of a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court in July in the case of The Miami Student v. Miami University.
The court ruled student newspaper editors at Miami University of Ohio have the right to see copies of the school’s disciplinary records.
The case began in July 1996 when Jennifer Markiewicz and Emily Herbert, now former editors of The Miami Student, filed suit to obtain school disciplinary records that the school claimed to be protected from disclosure by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly referred to as the Buckley Amendment.
The Ohio Supreme Court determined last July that school records did not fall under the law’s definition of education records, and that the university must disclose the documents.
Marc Mezibov, attorney for The Miami Student, said this is an important ruling for the student press.
“The decision means universities, at least in Ohio, are not free to ignore a request for information with respect to disciplinary records,” Mezibov said.
However, Ohio universities are now caught between the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Supreme Court when it comes to releasing the disciplinary documents.
As a result of the state supreme court’s ruling, the U.S. Department of Education issued on Aug. 7 a letter to colleges in Ohio saying they should not release university disciplinary documents that identify individual students.
The court had stated that because The Miami Student did not ask for student’s names, the school did not have to release the names in this instance.
Although the school had given the newspaper some information regarding campus crimes, they deleted information such as the location, time and date of the incident.
The court said that by deleting the information the university had improperly withheld information.
The school said if they released students names or information identifying students they would violate FERPA and risk losing federal education funding of as much as $40 million.
The letter issued by the Department of Education as a result of The Miami Student v. Miami University decision warns colleges in Ohio that they may be in violation of FERPA if they comply with the court’s decision.
The Education Department says disciplinary records are considered “education records” under FERPA and to release these records is a violation of federal law.
The letter noted Ohio universities could comply with the federal law if they released the records but deleted any information that might identify a student.
Identifiable information under FERPA includes names of students or their family members, Social Security numbers, student identification numbers or any other information that would make a student’s identity easily traceable.
Mezibov said the education department does not have jurisdiction to stop universities from releasing the disciplinary documents in their entirety.
“The Department of Education cannot prohibit universities from releasing the information,” he said. “They can pull their federal funding though.”
Mezibov said universities would be able to file a suit against the department if federal funding was taken away for releasing disciplinary documents, since they were released under a court order. He also said he thinks documents released under a court order are exempt from FERPA.
Some publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education, have requested disciplinary records from colleges since the Ohio Supreme Court handed down its decision.
Scott Jaschik, Deputy Managing Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, said the press has good intentions in requesting disciplinary and campus crime records.
“The press is not trying to invade people’s privacy for the sake of doing it,” Jaschik said.
He noted that The Chronicle reporters feel an obligation to cover campus crime and disciplinary records because they are of interest to students, parents and faculty interested in campus safety.
He said it is difficult to accurately report on campus crime when names and specific incidents are not available.
He said he understands the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision to mean universities must release all information in crime and disciplinary records.
“We interpret the ruling to mean they have to give us everything,” Jaschik said.
The Chronicle, however, voluntarily told universities they would not print the names of sex crime victims or any students’ social security numbers.
After the Supreme Court announced it would not review the case, Miami University said it would provide the requested records.
reports, Winter 1997-98