PRESS RELEASE: SPLC hails progress toward reforming FERPA excesses





Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director. (703) 807-1904 or director@splc.org

Following the Columbus Dispatch's revelation that college athletic departments routinely invoke federal "education privacy" laws to refuse to release airplane passenger manifests, complementary ticket lists and other non-educational documents, the Student Press Law Center is joining leading Ohio elected officials in calling for reforms.

In letters sent Wednesday, the SPLC offered to work with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, each of whom told the Dispatch that they will seek to rein in excesses in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment.

Congress enacted FERPA in 1974 to penalize schools that fail to adopt and enforce policies to safeguard the confidentiality of student education records. As the Dispatch documented in a series of stories that began running on May 31, colleges routinely refuse to honor open-records requests for records that cannot realistically be considered "educational," including the names of those receiving free football tickets from student athletes. Worse, as the Dispatch reported June 7, FERPA has been invoked to block parents from receiving potentially life-saving information about their own children's medical conditions. The primary author of FERPA, retired U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley of New York, told the Dispatch that FERPA "needs to be revamped" because colleges are relying on the law to conceal records that Congress never intended to classify as confidential.

"There is a reason that Ohio and all 49 other states have enacted broad statutes that declare all government records, including those kept by schools, open for public inspection with limited exceptions: because there is a compelling public interest in honest and efficient government, which can be served only if the public can independently verify how agencies are performing," attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in a June 10 letter to Senator Brown and Attorney General Cordray.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit whose mission is to advocate for free-press rights for high school and college journalists nationwide. The Center provides legal information and referral assistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.

LoMonte said the SPLC regularly hears from journalists denied access to documents with no legitimately private student information, including audit reports of college spending, on the grounds that any document naming or referring to a student is a confidential FERPA document. One public university in Wisconsin recently responded to a student newspaper's open-records request for records of a university committee meeting by producing an almost completely erased tape-recording, on the grounds that the voices of students speaking at a public meeting are confidential FERPA information.

"While some FERPA-based denials are good-faith misinterpretations of the law, too often colleges abuse FERPA to withhold information they consider embarrassing. Unfortunately, Congress failed to provide penalties for the bad-faith misuse of FERPA to conceal information in which there is no legitimate privacy interest," LoMonte said. "Now that Senator Buckley has come forward and declared that FERPA is being abused beyond what Congress intended, it's time for Congress to act. Congress should clarify that the law applies only to students' academic records, and should impose real penalties for bad-faith reliance on FERPA to withhold newsworthy, non-confidential information."

For more information on the SPLC, go to www.splc.org.


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