Florida appeals court: College must release name of student who complained about professor

Email not 'directly related' to student under FERPA

FLORIDA — An email from a student to a department chair complaining about a professor is not a confidential education record, a Florida appeals court ruled Thursday.

Darnell Rhea, a former adjunct professor of mathematics at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., brought the public records lawsuit. Rhea requested an email a student wrote to one of his supervisors complaining about Rhea’s conduct. When Rhea received the email, the name of the student was redacted.

Rhea said he wanted to know the name of the student so he could defend himself against the email’s allegations.

The college claimed releasing the student’s name would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law, because the email was an “education record.” Last year, a trial court judge agreed.

Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, however, ruled that the email must be released with the name because it is not an education record. The judges cited FERPA’s definition of an education record, which states the record must be “directly related to a student.”

The email Rhea requested was not, the judges determined.

“The fundamental character of the e-mail relates directly to the instructor; the fact that it was authored by a student does not convert it into an ‘education record,’” Judge Stephanie Ray wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

The judges ruled the email must be released because of its status as a public record.

“Because the e-mail at issue is a communication that was sent to, and received by the College in connection with the transaction of its official business, it is a public record subject to disclosure in the absence of a statutory exemption,” Ray wrote in the ruling.

Rhea represented himself pro se but lost the case at the trial court level.

He said he has filed many lawsuits and thought he might have a chance at winning this one because of the length of time that passed since he filed his initial brief.

“The court of appeal is a place where they don’t give a flip about who the person is,” Rhea said. “They want to know what the issue is and get in there and make the right decision.”

He said it could be a month or two before he learns the name of the student who wrote the email.

“Some people go fishing, some people climb mountains, some people go out and mow the grass.... My hobby is filing lawsuits against government agencies,” Rhea said.

Patti Locascio, Santa Fe College’s general counsel, said the college believes the email is clearly a student record and is “adamant about protecting students’ right to privacy.”

The college has until Aug. 2 to ask the appeals court for a rehearing, and until Aug. 20 to ask the Florida Supreme Court to hear the case.

“We have not made a final decision but we are looking seriously at filing a motion for rehearing and/or filing a petition of review with the Florida Supreme Court,” Locascio said.

If not overturned, the decision becomes binding precedent in the First District, which covers much of North Florida and the panhandle.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Florida, news, Santa Fe College

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