PRESS RELEASE: Student journalists sue Wisconsin college officials over spurious 'privacy' claims
SPLC volunteer attorneys file open-records complaint against University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Editors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's UWM Post filed suit today challenging their college's claim that any document that identifies a student - even the recording of a student's voice speaking at a public committee meeting - is a confidential "educational record" that cannot be released under Wisconsin's public-records law.
The Post and its former editor-in-chief, Jonathan Anderson, filed suit today in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, seeking a declaration that the records sought by the Post are covered by the Wisconsin Open Records Law. The complaint was filed by attorneys Robert J. Dreps and Rebecca Kathryn Mason of the law firm of Godfrey & Kahn, S.C., a leading media-law firm, representing the students as part of the Student Press Law Center's Attorney Referral Network.
Post editors were refused access to agendas, minutes and audio recordings of meetings of the Union Policy Board, which makes policy for the UWM Student Union, a campus cultural and recreational center. Although the board meetings were open for members of the public to attend, UWM Public Records Custodian Amy Watson denied the Post's request almost entirely, claiming that the names of students - and even the sound of their voices - are protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment. Watson agreed to release only heavily edited records - including an audio recording on which all but one voice was erased.
The Post and its editors have been repeatedly denied access to newsworthy public records under claims of FERPA privacy. Among the information that student journalists requested, but were refused, included:
- The names of college employees who sit on student disciplinary hearing panels.
- Travel records of student government officers who took trips at taxpayer expense through UWM
Anderson was presented with the 2009 "College Press Freedom Award" on Oct. 31 by the Associated Collegiate Press and the Student Press Law Center for his persistence in pressing for greater access to public records from UWM and its student government association.
"FERPA is a confusing law that is badly in need of clarification, but UWM's ultra-literal interpretation is the most extreme and nonsensical that we have ever seen," SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said. "All laws are supposed to be applied in a common-sense manner, but UWM has exhibited ‘zero tolerance for common sense' when applying FERPA."
"Congress intended FERPA to protect truly confidential information, such as grades, where there is no legitimate public interest in disclosure. What people say at a government meeting is undeniably a newsworthy matter of public interest. Just because the college puts public information into a document or onto a tape, the information does not magically become confidential," LoMonte said.
The complaint points out that the UPB is a public body subject to the state's open-records and open-meetings laws, so that its records are not the individual education records of any particular student. The complaint also points out that other public bodies with student members, including the Wisconsin Board of Regents, do not redact or withhold records of meetings in which students participate.
"The Post disagrees with UWM's interpretation of FERPA. We do not think Union Policy Board documents and recordings should be considered an educational record. It's my hope that this action will ultimately lead to a much needed clarification of this federal student privacy law," said Kevin Lessmiller, the current Editor-in-Chief of the UWM Post.
Anderson, who is now the Post's special-projects editor, said, "The university's assertion that FERPA was intended to restrict disclosure of the records of the Union Policy Board - a powerful governing body that has significant oversight over the allocation of state resources and makes important policy decisions that greatly affect student life on the UWM campus - cannot be countenanced."
The complaint names as defendants the Union Policy Board and Watson as the university's public-records custodian. The complaint seeks an order compelling the disclosure of all records requested by Anderson and the Post, as well as an award of attorney fees.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.
CONTACT: Frank D. LoMonte, Esq. Executive Director Student Press Law Center (703) 807-1904 firstname.lastname@example.org
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