Complaint alleges Michigan State violated student's privacy by releasing report

MICHIGAN -- A student at Michigan State University is asking the Department of Education to investigate his claim that the university violated his privacy rights by releasing investigative records concerning his student organization.

The student, Kyle Bristow, sent a complaint letter to the DOE shortly after a commercial paper, the Lansing State Journal, on March 26 posted a copy of a university report on complaints lodged against two student groups. The university conducted an investigation of the groups for a possible violation of the university's anti-discrimination policy after students accused the groups -- Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans -- of harassing and discriminating against students based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

Students complained, for example, that Young Americans for Freedom's blog referred to certain ethnic groups as "savages," and at various events sponsored by the two organizations members allegedly called students derogatory names.

Michigan State University's Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Activities conducted an investigation of the groups after eight students filed complaints last year. The office ultimately concluded neither group violated university policy.

Bristow is the former president of the school chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and is still active in the organization.

Bristow argues that Michigan State University violated his rights under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits the release of educational records without student consent, by releasing its report on the investigation to the media and others who should not have had access to it.

"A report was released by the university to the media, in which it was published online," Bristow said to the Student Press Law Center. "The university has no right to release documents of the sort."

Both the Lansing State Journal and Michigan State University say that the university did not release the report to the media.

Terry Denbow, vice president for university relations for Michigan State University, said that the university did not release the report the media because of the restrictions of FERPA.

"We take FERPA very seriously," Denbow said.

Additionally, the Lansing State Journal article says the university refused to release the report and that "The Lansing State Journal

obtained it [the report] from one of the accused parties." The article goes on to state that FERPA was cited as the reason the university would not release the report.

Matthew Miller, the reporter of the March 26 article, declined to comment.

Denbow said that a version of the report without students' names -- which is the version posted by the Lansing State Journal -- was available to those students who brought the complaints and to the two groups that were being investigated.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said it is important to note that only educational institutions are governed by FERPA and that newspapers cannot violate the law because they are not subject to it.

Goldstein said that information published by a newspaper that was obtained from an educational institution could be evidence of a FERPA violation, but it would be the school that was in violation, not the newspaper.

Goldstein also said, however, that although FERPA defines what information a school can release and to whom, it does not make schools responsible for ensuring that a FERPA-compliant release of information is not disseminated to others.

Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said the office does not comment on any investigations it may be doing, and therefore could not confirm if it has received Bristow's complaint.

Schools found to have violated FERPA can, in theory, lose their DOE funding, but Bradshaw said it has never come to that point with any school and that in virtually all cases schools were able to come into compliance.

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