Appeals court tosses Chicago Tribune’s FERPA lawsuit over admissions records

Newspaper's attorney says case will continue in state court

ILLINOIS — A federal appeals court on Thursday threw out the Chicago Tribune’s public records lawsuit against the University of Illinois, finding that the suit must be brought in state court.

The lawsuit sought access to the names and addresses of the parents of admission applicants on the university’s so-called “clout list.” The newspaper published a series of stories in 2009 claiming UI had a preferential admissions policy in which friends of trustees and state lawmakers were admitted despite subpar academic qualifications. The scandal led to the resignation of the university president and several members of its board of trustees.

The university argues the requested records are protected by a federal student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and do not have to be disclosed under the state’s public records act.

The Tribune sued in federal court, and a judge in March 2011 found FERPA does not bar the release of otherwise public documents. The ruling Thursday from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacates that decision and dismisses the case on procedural grounds.

“Because the Tribune’s claim to the information arises under Illinois law, the state court is the right forum to determine the validity of whatever defenses the University presents to the Tribune’s request,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

The panel did not express an opinion on whether the records should be disclosed, finding that question must be answered by a state court rather than a federal one.

Sam Skinner, attorney for the University of Illinois, said he considers the ruling a victory, even though the court did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit. Both sides had urged the Seventh Circuit to keep the case in federal court.

“It would have been nice to have had them resolve the issue,” he said. “We believe if they had resolved the issue that they would have come down for protection of student records.”

James Klenk, the newspaper’s attorney, said the Tribune will "vigorously pursue" the case in state court.

"It's ridiculous to say that it's an educational record when [former] Gov. Blagojevich calls the chancellor of the university and says 'admit this person.'" Klen said. "That's not an educational record under any reading of FERPA."

A state case is pending in Sangamon County Circuit Court, but has been largely dormant while the federal lawsuit moved forward. Klenk said he has not yet decided on his next move.

"It'll be the quickest one I can think of," he said.

UI vowed to continue fighting to withhold the admissions records.

“We’re not giving these records up,” he said. “We think they’re protected under FERPA. We’re not going to expose the students, the parents and the school to any kind of action because we violated federal law.”

A group of 23 media organizations, including the Student Press Law Center, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Seventh Circuit to take a narrow view of FERPA.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said he doesn’t disagree with the court’s rationale but would have preferred to see the earlier decision upheld.

“The district judge did an excellent job of confining FERPA to its rightful place and it would have been nice to get that reasoning affirmed,” LoMonte said.

By Brian Schraum, SPLC staff writer

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Illinois, news, University of Illinois