Gonzaga University v. Doe

The question of private action was raised in 2002, when former Gonzaga University student Ru Paster, identified in court documents only as John Doe, said university officials violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, when they passed on unsubstantiated sexual assault allegations to the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Paster said that he failed to get state teaching certification because of the allegations.

Paster then sued the Spokane, Wash. school for defamation, negligence, breach of contract and violation of FERPA after it released information to the state licensing agency related to accusations of sexual misconduct against another student. Paster was never convicted of a crime, and the state supreme court upheld a jury decision awarding him $1.1 million, $450,000 of which was based on the FERPA violation.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to clarify whether individual students or their parents can sue for violation of the privacy law. In a 7-2 ruling, the Court decided that individual students cannot seek damages from institutions for the release of personal information regulated by FERPA. The majority went beyond FERPA to declare that no federal law can create a private cause of action under Section 1983, a statute that allows individuals to pursue claims for alleged civil-rights violations, unless the language of the law in question clearly states that such a suit is permissible. The decision limits what could have been a chilling effect on the news media from schools fearing lawsuits and tightening their reign on student information.