Wis. releases admissions records

Request does not violate federal student privacy statute, state court rules

WISCONSIN ' The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled July 2 that University of Wisconsin officials must comply with open-records requests and release information about applicants that does not compromise individual identities.

The court ruled that exemptions under federal and state law do not allow the board of regents to deny the release of the information sought by law student J. Marshall Osborn, including applicants' grade-point averages, test scores, race, gender and ethnicity.

'[The decision] means that public schools won't be able to hide admissions data that helps show the extent to which they are engaged in racial and ethnic admissions discrimination,' said Roger Clegg, legal defense director for the Center for Equal Opportunity.

In 1998, the university denied several of Osborn's open-records requests seeking applicant data, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and exemptions in the Wisconsin state law.

Osborn, represented by the Center for Equal Opportunity, filed a lawsuit to compel the university to comply.

The state supreme court reversed an appellate court decision. It disagreed with the university's contention that the information was considered 'education records,' and thus exempt under FERPA because the data did not identify individual applicants.

'We conclude that only if the open-records request seeks information that would make a student's identity traceable, may a custodian rely on FERPA to deny the request on the basis that it seeks personally identifiable information,' Judge N. Patrick Crooks wrote for the court.

The court also rejected the university's denial of records under state law, agreeing with Osborn that 'Wisconsin prefers open government and public accountability unless there is an exceptionally good reason for confidentiality.'

The Student Press Law Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Osborn, arguing that public access should only be denied in exceptional cases.

Alan Lee, Wisconsin assistant attorney general, said the state was satisfied with the decision and will not appeal because the information released was broader than what Osborn requested.

case: J. Marshall Osborn and Center for Equal Opportunity v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Wisconsin System, 647 N.W.2d 158 (Wis. 2002)

Fall 2002, reports