Federal judge prohibits Ohio schools from releasing campus court records

District court says FERPA prohibits release of student disciplinary information

OHIO -- A federal judge refused to give a newspaper access to the student disciplinary records of two Ohio universities on March 20, saying the files qualify as education records and are protected from public release by federal law.

U.S. District Judge George C. Smith said Miami University of Ohio and Ohio State University would be violating the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act if they disclosed information about identifiable students' confidential campus judicial proceedings to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which had requested the details under the state open-records law.

"The public, while certainly benefiting from laws that promote openness in public records, also benefits from the privacy accorded students through FERPA," Smith said in the decision. "Congress, through FERPA, has balanced the interests of privacy versus public disclosure and the Court is in no position to second guess it."

Counsel for The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper based in Washington, D.C., argued that the state of Ohio permitted the disclosure of disciplinary records under its Public Records Act. However, Smith said in the ruling that his job was to interpret the federal law. He said FERPA bars schools from releasing student records that include "personally identifiable information" without the student's consent.

Editors and lawyers for The Chronicle are appealing the district judge's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, said Scott Jaschik, editor of The Chronicle.

The case dates back to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in July 1997 that ordered Miami University in Oxford to release disciplinary records to the Miami Student,the university's student newspaper. The student paper requested the files in 1995 as part of a series on crime and justice at the institution, but was denied access. The state supreme court ruled that disciplinary records were not FERPA-regulated "education records" and therefore were not protected by the federal act. Miami University then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Ohio court's ruling, but the justices declined to hear the case.

Soon after, The Chronicle requested the similar records from Miami University and Ohio State. Miami and Ohio State were in the process of disclosing the information to the newspaper when the Department of Education intervened. It sued both universities for violating FERPA regulations by providing personally identifiable information without the proper consent from adult students or parents. When neither Miami nor Ohio State challenged the lawsuit, The Chronicle intervened as a third party defendant in the case.

In his ruling, Judge Smith refused to validate The Chronicle's argument that the disciplinary records were equivalent to law-enforcement files, which can be disclosed under FERPA. Smith said that unlike campus court records, police records are not created for the purpose of campus discipline.

Smith said campus judicial proceedings and records relating to those proceedings are not "criminal in nature," but merely a recourse for institutions to enforce the campus code of conduct. Schools may release the final results of student disciplinary cases involving crimes of violence or nonforcible sex offenses under a 1998 amendment to FERPA.

Smith said students' personal safety and crime prevention efforts would not be endangered by denying the release of disciplinary records. He cited the Student Right-To-Know Act, in which universities are required to publish yearly statistics reporting the occurrence of crimes on campus, as sufficient notification of campus crime incidents for the surrounding community.

"The Court believes that these disclosures are adequate to inform students, prospective students and parents about the safety of various college campuses," Smith said in the decision. "Releasing the personally identifiable information of the students accused or convicted of violating the university regulations, as well as information about the victims, would not further advance the public's interest."

S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, a national, nonprofit watchdog group that follows campus crime, said he was disappointed with the district judge's decision.

"Students need to be able to exercise oversight of campus court proceedings so that they can have the full picture of campus crime and know if justice is truly being done," Carter said. "This decision will further put students at undue risk because they won't be able to find out which of their fellow students are violent criminals."

Jaschik said the ruling would inevitably make it more difficult for anyone to obtain campus court records.

"We're disappointed with the decision," he said. "We continue to think that the Ohio Supreme Court decision made these records public, and that the public has a right to know about the way these campus judicial systems work."

Since 1990, Ohio had been one of two states in the nation whose high courts had ruled in favor of allowing public disclosure of student judiciary records based on state open-records laws. The other state is Georgia.

Student media and others watching the Ohio situation from Georgia are worried that the Department of Education could intervene and challenge their state supreme court's 1993 decision.

The Ohio ruling will not affect any universities outside of Ohio, but if Georgia students were to complain about the privacy of their records, the DOE could possibly challenge the state court's ruling.

The SPLC press release about the case and a link to the full text of the decision are available at http://www.splc.org/newsflash_archives.asp?id=147&year=2000.

reports, Spring 2000