University of Texas refuses student newspaper's records request for student government e-mails

TEXAS -- The University of Texas at Austin denied student journalists' public records requests for e-mails between student government officials, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Editors at the Daily Texan do not think the e-mails they requested March 11 should be protected by FERPA just because they contain student names, but the university said it must protect any identifiable student information. FERPA, a federal law also known as the Buckley Amendment, counteracts states' public records laws by prohibiting schools that receive federal funding from releasing students' confidential educational records.

The Daily Texan requested the e-mails as part of an investigation into a student government election scandal brought to light by one e-mail leaked to the newspaper. Editor-in-Chief Leah Finnegan said the requested documents were not educational records, but government business that the public has a right to know about.

"We were arguing that because these students had e-mail addresses on the public U-Texas server and they were conducting government business, we should be privy to those e-mails," Finnegan said.

However, the school denied the requests on March 26 and gave another denial when the newspaper asked again. The Daily Texan's request fundamentally conflicted with FERPA by requesting certain named students' e-mails, said Annela Lopez, an administrative assistant in the Office of the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer who deals with public records.

"You're naming a student when you're asking for their record, so how do you release that record without identifying that individual?" Lopez said. "You don't, and you can't. The request was denied in full."

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said state universities' student government records should be held to the same standards of transparency as any other government officials responsible for making policy and spending public money.

"It is a misuse of FERPA to say that e-mails between student government officials become confidential FERPA records simply because they contain students' names," he said. "It is hardly a secret that a student holds a publicly elected office that he campaigned for."

Lopez said each institution makes its own judgments about FERPA-protected records, and those who disagree with a redaction or a request denial can file a complaint with the federal compliance office.

The Daily Texan is still waiting to receive copies of e-mails between administrators in response to a later request, but Finnegan said they decided not to further pursue the student e-mails at this point in the school year.

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