Court: UF student senate recordings not covered by FERPA
FLORIDA -- A state court judge ruled in favor of former University of Florida student Frank Bracco seeking the release of audio and video records of UF student senate meetings.
“Today was a major victory for Sunshine advocates in higher education,” Bracco said in a press release following the Jan. 10 judgment, “And, I hope this case sends a message to the State University System that public meeting records are just that: public.”
The university argued that the records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), claiming they fall under the category of educational records, which are not publicly accessible.
Bracco said he intended to post the videos of the meetings online, in order to promote the transparency of UF student government. He filed suit in August 2009 after the university denied his request for the records.
“The original intention was to allow student government to be able to release these records themselves, be able to promote themselves, to be able to get transparency out there like they should be,” Bracco said.
Prior to 2008, Bracco said all of the files were publicly available, and in the past were broadcast on television, with no question as to whether they were protected by FERPA.
Bracco was invited to review the records in the student senate office at his convenience, but was not allowed to obtain copies, according to court documents.
“The thing that boggles my mind is I can come in and listen to them, but I can’t get copies of them,” Bracco said. “And this just flies in the face of the whole FERPA argument. FERPA means they’re protected and I can’t look at them.”
Attorney Jim Sullivan, representing Bracco in the case, pointed out that Florida law establishes student government at UF and grants the student body president a seat at the board of governors along with a number of other statutory powers.
“In our case, it merely clarifies that the student government is certainly not a private entity,” Sullivan said. “It is part of the University of Florida, which is a state agency subject to public records disclosure.”
According to the ruling by Circuit Judge Victor L. Hulslander, “While the videos depict students discussing student and University business, the record does not reflect that the proceedings relate directly to an identified student. Rather, the proceedings relate generally to topics of importance to students and may identify specific students, but not as a focus of the record. Moreover, because the meeting itself was open, it is hardly logical that a memorialization of it would be confidential.”
Bracco said he hopes the court will release a final judgment this week.
“Once we get final judgment, it’s at that time that the university hands over the records or unfortunately decides to appeal,” Bracco said.
If they do appeal, Sullivan said the case could be years away from a final resolution, possibly reaching the Florida Supreme Court.
“Sitting from where they’re sitting, they may see that as an appropriate action and I don’t mean to be critical of that,” Sullivan said.
University spokeswoman Janine Sikes said that the university has not yet decided its reaction to the ruling.
“Certainly the University of Florida supports transparency in its student senate meetings,” Sikes said. “We’re evaluating the ruling and weighing that against our obligations under FERPA.”
Although Bracco is now a graduate of UF, he is determined to get the student senate records online.
“The intention is to still go forward with the original plan of allowing student government to post these records online,” Bracco said. “If I need to put them online myself to get to that point, I’ll do it.”
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