SPLC urges “common sense” ruling in University of Illinois open-records dispute


Center leads media coalition in urging 7th Circuit to affirm FERPA ruling





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit advocate representing the interests of the college and high school media nationwide, urged a federal appeals court Friday to uphold a lower court’s ruling granting the Chicago Tribune access to public records about a secretive VIP admissions program that the University of Illinois attempted to conceal on the grounds of “student confidentiality.”

The SPLC and its partner organization, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, co-authored and filed a friend-of-the-court (“amicus”) brief today, joined by 21 media organizations and companies, among them the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of News Editors, ABC, NBC, The New York Times Company and The Associated Press.

The brief asks the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Chicago, to affirm a U.S. District Court’s March 7, 2011, ruling that federal privacy law is no obstacle to the disclosure of public records requested by the Tribune.

“For far too long, colleges and schools have been hiding behind bogus claims of ‘student privacy’ to conceal embarrassing information that ought to be a matter of public record,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, who signed the brief along with attorneys Lucy Dalglish and Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee. “The courts have been virtually unanimous in telling schools that not every cocktail napkin with a student’s name is a confidential ‘education record,’ and this should be doubly true when disclosure is essential to get to the bottom of a scandal involving the abuse of public trust.”

The Tribune requested records from UI as part of an ongoing investigative series, “Clout Goes to College,” documenting how politicians and large donors were able to get special consideration for otherwise-unqualified college applicants through UI’s government affairs office, which ran a “shadow” admissions program separate from normal admissions channels. After the Tribune brought the “clout” admissions program to light, the president of UI and most of the university’s trustees stepped down.

The university denied the Tribune’s request for documents that include copies of recommendation letters that would identify which politicians took advantage of the “clout” admissions system. The university claimed the documents were “education records” protected by a federal confidentiality law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. FERPA requires colleges and schools to maintain a policy of keeping students’ individually identifiable education records confidential. The penalty for failing to maintain a confidentiality policy is potential revocation of federal funding by the U.S. Department of Education, but that penalty has never been imposed in FERPA’s 37-year history.

In the brief, the media organizations identify numerous other instances in which colleges have strained FERPA’s definition of “education record” to deny public-records requests for information that is not confidential or “educational,” including audiotapes of government meetings, athletes’ parking tickets, payments to settle lawsuits, and videotapes of school bus altercations.

“Far from protecting the interests of students against abuse by their schools, FERPA instead has become the default response to any citizen’s request for information, interposed to delay and frustrate journalists and parents alike as they attempt to discharge their legitimate oversight role over institutions of government,” the amicus brief states.

The brief points out that numerous courts have sided with the news media and disagreed with the over-broad definition of “education records” adopted by the University of Illinois and its supporters. Just this year, a state-court judge in North Carolina ordered the University of North Carolina to turn over athletic department records withheld on FERPA grounds, and a state-court judge in Arizona ordered Pima Community College to release hundreds of pages of emails regarding Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner, a former PCC student, over the college’s FERPA objections.

In the brief, the media organizations urge the Seventh Circuit to restrict the reach of FERPA to documents that: contain information that is actually confidential and not already publicly known, relate to a student’s academic life and not to peripheral matters such as parking tickets, pertain directly and not tangentially to named students, and are stored in a central records repository with the student’s academic records.

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.

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