Press-rights groups support Florida college journalists’ demand for fraternity discipline records
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 16, 2015
Contact: Frank LoMonte
In a brief filed Monday, the Student Press Law Center and four other media organizations challenge the University of Central Florida’s claim that a federal student privacy law precludes releasing records of disciplinary actions against Greek houses and other newsworthy public documents.
The SPLC brief, filed with Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, argues that the student privacy statute, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), cannot constitutionally be applied to obstruct compliance with state open-records laws.
The filing of the brief coincides with the start of “Sunshine Week,” an observance of the importance of openness in government launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and observed every March.
“The Supreme Court has unmistakably said that Congress cannot force states to comply with federal mandates under a financial gun to the head, and FERPA – which carries a potentially devastating penalty of losing all federal funding – is the clearest possible example of a federal gun to the head,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “If FERPA really said what the University of Central Florida claims, it would be unconstitutional. The courts must interpret FERPA as its congressional sponsors intended – as a penalty for a habitual practice of mishandling students’ records, not for granting one request.”
The SPLC brief was co-signed by First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Press Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Orlando’s WKMG-TV. The media organizations are represented by attorneys Mark Caramanica and Carol Jean LoCicero of the Tampa office of Thomas & LoCicero P.L., which specializes in representing news-media organizations.
The media organizations are supporting student journalists with Knight News, an independent news outlet covering UCF. The journalists contend that UCF inadequately responded to a series of public-records requests dating back to 2012 needed for the news organization’s coverage of campus events. The university either refused to release, or released with significant portions redacted, public records that involve hazing allegations against fraternities, affidavits introduced as part of an investigation into campus election irregularities, and the budget requests submitted by student organizations seeking student activity fee funding.
A Florida circuit court accepted UCF’s student confidentiality arguments and ruled against the student journalists in 2014, resulting in their appeal to the regional appellate court.
“Nobody in America outside the legal department of a college thinks that a request for Student Government funding is a confidential education record, and yet that’s the position that the University of Central Florida is trying to defend,” LoMonte said. “It’s time for Congress to wake up to the rampant misuse of FERPA and rewrite the statute to cover only truly confidential educational records, not records involving government spending, official misconduct or public safety.”
In the brief, the news organizations argue that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the “Obamacare” case, NFIB v. Sebelius, makes it impossible for colleges to insist that FERPA disqualifies institutions from receiving federal funding if they honor requests for public records relating to students. In the Sebelius case, the Supreme Court found that Congress cannot use federal funding to force states to change their policies under threat of financial disaster.
The brief points out that many other colleges have released, without adverse consequences, records just like the ones that UCF is claiming are confidential under federal privacy law. The brief cites recent investigative reporting by the Baltimore Sun, the Arizona Republic and Bloomberg News about fraternity hazing that was made possible by access to the same records that UCF insists it can withhold or redact.
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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