SPLC Calls for FERPA Reform After ‘Outlandish’ Court Ruling Shielding Iowa Rape Records


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), a nonprofit legal-assistance organization that supports student journalists nationwide, released the following statement Friday in response to the Iowa Supreme Court’s July 13 ruling in Press-Citizen Company v. University of Iowa.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said:

“The idea that a criminal has a legitimate privacy interest in records about how his crimes were investigated should offend the sensibilities of all Americans. Extremists in the U.S. Department of Education have hijacked a well-intentioned law about the confidentiality of academic records and, by their bizarre interpretations, transformed it into the Federal Education Rapists’ Protection Act.”

“It is a painful irony that, just one day after the world learned of the extent of Penn State’s subterfuge to conceal the activities of a sexual predator on campus, a court grants colleges a stamp of judicial legitimacy to continue deceiving the public about how they respond to serious crimes. The Iowa Supreme Court’s outlandish ruling is a wake-up call that Congress cannot ignore. FERPA has been a broken statute for a long time, and now the disastrous consequences of congressional inaction have been brought home. The Department of Education must be called to account for putting fictitious privacy interests ahead of the safety of college campuses.”

“To be clear, the Press-Citizen was not seeking to compromise any legitimate privacy interest in education records. The Press-Citizen was seeking records necessary to inform the public about whether the University of Iowa responded with proper urgency to a report of a serious crime. That the records involved crimes committed by known students should not matter, and in the view of most courts it does not matter, since there is no legitimate privacy interest in being a criminal. Public universities cannot be given license to hide behind bogus ‘student privacy’ claims to conceal whether they diligently investigate crimes or whether they afford preferential treatment to student-athletes.”

“When the Department of Education reinterpreted FERPA to allow schools and colleges to ‘read the minds’ of requesters and to withhold information if they believe the requester has a specific student in mind, the SPLC warned that it would lead to nonsensical results. Today’s decision exemplifies the DOE’s shortsightedness in enacting an unreasonable expansion of FERPA. In effect, the DOE has said that public records can become confidential because their contents are so newsworthy that everyone already knows who they are about. That is an Alice-in-Wonderland view of privacy that results in affording enhanced privacy rights to people whose identities, as in this case, are already widespread public knowledge. It is nonsense to say that information becomes ‘more confidential’ because it is the subject of a widely publicized controversy of enormous public concern. Congress must act to rein in FERPA before more such abuses proliferate.”

The Student Press Law Center advocates for the rights of journalists to obtain public information from colleges and schools. The SPLC filed comments in the DOE rulemaking concerning the 2009 regulation at issue in the Press-Citizen case. More information about the Center’s work in support of government transparency can be found at www.splc.org.