Education journal joins in disciplinary records case


Lawsuit by Education Dept. would cover up crime info





OHIO — The Chronicle of Higher Education has joined Miami University and Ohio State University as a co-defendant in a federal lawsuit brought in January by the U.S. Department of Education to prevent the schools from releasing student disciplinary records.

The Chronicle’s move follows a preliminary injunction granted by a U.S. district court prohibiting the universities from releasing disciplinary records that contain “personally identifiable information,” such as names.

“The public benefits from laws that promote a policy of openness in public records, but it also benefits from laws that protect the privacy of individuals,” Judge George C. Smith said. “Release of the disciplinary records would violate federal law, and thereby do harm to the privacy interests Congress sought to protect. The court finds that such a violation would constitute irreparable harm.”

In July 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that school disciplinary records were not “education records” under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, and therefore are subject to the state open records law.

As part of that ruling, the court ordered Miami to release records from the school’s disciplinary proceedings to the university’s student newspaper, The Miami Student, which had sued for access to the information. The Miami Student’s initial request did not seek students’ names.

In December 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case as requested by Miami University.

Enabled by the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, The Chronicle requested disciplinary records in their entirety from both Miami and Ohio State. After the High Court allowed the state court’s ruling to stand, Miami University released disciplinary records that included names of accused students. Ohio State University also released to The Chronicle records from November 1995 and 1996.

In response to the schools’ disclosure of some disciplinary records, the Education Department filed an injunction to prevent more records from being released to The Chronicle and a Cincinnati newspaper. The department considers disciplinary records to fall within the definition of education records under the federal privacy law, and therefore maintains that schools would be in violation of the law if they released records that might identify students.

The Chronicle’s request for records that include names and specific incidents is to facilitate the reporting of campus crime. According to Scott Jaschik, deputy managing editor of The Chronicle, the national education newspaper has an interest in reporting on campus crime and disciplinary records because those topics are of interest to students, parents and faculty who are concerned about campus safety.

However, the outlook for a decision favorable to The Chronicle may be dim since Judge Smith, who granted the injunction against releasing the disputed records, predicted that the Education Department is likely to succeed. He also outlined his view that disciplinary records constitute educational records under the Buckley Amendment1s definition.

“It is abundantly clear that the disciplinary records that are the subject of the instant case satisfy both prongs of the statutory definition of records. The disciplinary records ‘contain information directly relating to a student’ … [N]othing in the statutory scheme suggests that ‘information directly relating to a student’ pertains only to academic performance, as the court in The Miami Student seemed to infer,” Judge Smith wrote.

The Student Press Law Center and other media groups plan to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of The Chronicle before the district court.


reports, Spring 1998