Punching holes in FERPA secrecy

To recognize "Sunshine Week," a national commemoration of the vital importance of transparency in government, the journalism interns at the Student Press Law Center conduct an annual "compliance audit" to test whether schools and colleges truly honor their duty to disclose public records.

This year, we focused on the disciplinary mechanisms maintained by colleges and universities to pass judgment on student misconduct complaints. We did so because these disciplinary systems at times handle cases of great public importance in secrecy. While the public probably thinks of a "student conduct" infraction as sneaking a beer in a dorm room, in fact many conduct boards handle serious allegations — including rapes — that would be punishable as felonies if referred to law enforcement.

To achieve nationwide coverage, we teamed with journalism students at three schools — Humboldt State University, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the University of North Texas —with a reputation for aggressive journalism. We thank professors Marcy Burstiner, Jessica McBride and Kathie Hinnen for throwing themselves into this undertaking and guiding their students through what at times was a frustrating search for answers.

The results of our team's reporting are featured in this issue's cover story (see page 6) and on our Web site. We hope that we have kindled greater interest among the student journalists on these campuses — and others nationwide — in asking tough questions about the nature of cases being processed through secretive "campus courts," and whether these mechanisms best serve the interests of public safety and justice.

One heartening result of the audit was that relatively few schools invoked the false justification of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to decline open-records requests. Almost all schools we surveyed understood that FERPA confidentiality applies only to individually identifiable student records, and not to anonymous statistical data we were after.

Elsewhere, however, the news is not as encouraging. At college after college, student journalists are being told that very basic information in which there is no legitimate privacy interest is confidential under FERPA.

Just recently, student journalists at Ocean County College in New Jersey were refused access to information confirming whether individuals actually attended the school. College officials claimed that this information — which most colleges give out routinely — is confidential FERPA information.

Student journalists at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee decided not to take their school's unfounded invocations of FERPA lying down. Editors of the Post and for the broadcast program PantherVision are asking Wisconsin's attorney general for a ruling that student government records are subject to disclosure under Wisconsin's sunshine law. And SPLC volunteer counsel is working with Post Editor Jonathan Anderson on seeking a broader resolution to that school's misapplication of FERPA.

With your support, the SPLC will continue to be the leading advocate against runaway secrecy of school records. We encourage you to let us know whenever you encounter a FERPA roadblock, so that we can continue building the case to help Congress understand the urgency of FERPA reform.

— Frank LoMonte, executive director

reports, Spring 2009