TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Journalists requesting public records from colleges are being treated like dogs. This Sunshine Week, it's time to unleash some shame.



A federal privacy law meant to safeguard student grades, transcripts and disciplinary files continues being misapplied to obstruct public accountability, even where no legitimate privacy interests are at stake.

Exhibit A is the University of Oklahoma's stubborn insistence that parking tickets are "confidential education records" under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. All evidence to the contrary.

No court has ever said that parking tickets are confidential education records, and two -- in Maryland and North Carolina -- have said to the contrary. Parking tickets are not confidential when given by any other police agency -- the same ticket that OU is treating as a secret on par with a student's grades would be readily disclosed if the vehicle were parked a block away from campus. Nor does the university handle tickets with the care that would accompany other education records -- to the contrary, they are stuck on motorists' windshields where they can easily be viewed or even stolen.

In other words, there is no good-faith legal basis to maintain that parking tickets are exempt from disclosure under the Oklahoma public records act -- and yet the University of Oklahoma continues insisting otherwise.

It's obvious to everyone what Oklahoma is afraid of. It's fearful that, if journalists can see the tickets issued to student-athletes, they'll find out something scandalous -- that parking tickets are being fixed for VIPs (as they were at the University of Maryland) or that athletes are driving suspiciously nice cars that don't belong to them (as they were at Ohio State).

It's this type of "we know we're wrong, but we also know you don't have the money to sue us" contempt that deserves calling out in a public way. And that's the rationale behind FOIA Shaming.

Thousands of dog owners worldwide have called out their slipper-swallowing, couch-chewing pets on often-hilarious Dog Shaming blogs. If it works for poodles, maybe it will work for provosts, too -- assuming they're capable of obedience training.

In conjunction with Sunshine Week -- the annual observance of the vital role that public records play in government accountability and citizen empowerment -- the SPLC is debuting the FOIA Shaming Tumblr as a showcase for the worst-of-the-worst public-records obstructionists.

Sometimes, the "confidentiality" claims that schools and colleges try to peddle -- making requesters file suit to obtain audiotapes of open-to-the-public student senate meetings, or the names of college employees who sit on campus disciplinary boards -- are so ridiculous that laughter is the only appropriate response. So let's all enjoy a chuckle at the expense of the bureaucrats and lawyers who refuse to take the public's right to know seriously. Until state legislatures and courts start taking compliance with public-records laws seriously and threatening scofflaws with personal financial liability and jail time, the power of ridicule may be all the leverage that the public has.

You can upload your own submission to Tumblr here.

 

 

Tagged: education records, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA, FOIA, parking tickets, public records, Sunshine Week, Transparency Tuesday, University of Oklahoma