The FERPA Four: Help decide who’s the national champion of college secrecy
Four teams face off, only one will prevail. We're asking you, the defenders of student press and avengers of egregious transparency violations to vote on the most opaque university of 2017.
And now, the contenders:
1. University of Kentucky
The Wildcats enter the FERPA Four as the 800-pound gorilla in the room, having sued the Kentucky Kernel, the college’s own student newspaper, last year after refusing to turn over Title IX investigation documents. That case has only gotten messier: two of the Title IX complaintants entered the case on the side of UK, and Kentucky Attorney General Anthony Beshear jumped into the fray on the side of the Kernel.
The conflict has spread all across the state. The University of Western Kentucky has now sued the College Heights Herald, its student newspaper, for the exact same reason. WKU and Kentucky State University also sued the Kernel for its records requests from those institutions.
And that’s all just within the past year. Reaching even further back, the university has stopped the Kernel from distributing newspapers at football tailgates. They’ve also concealed victims’ names on campus police reports, denied requests for communication records related to former basketball player Nerlens Noel, and refused to release the name of a basketball player who was suspected of committing a rape at a dorm. Sheesh.
2. University of North Carolina
The Tar Heels come in as a strong 2-seed in this tournament as athletic scandals and media lawsuits have piled up on them over the years. Last year, the Daily Tar Heel joined multiple media outlets in filing a legal complaint for the investigation records of students who have been investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct.
In 2014, the DTH joined a lawsuit to obtain records of staff disciplinary actions in the wake of a massive academic scandal involving the university’s athletics department.
In keeping with its deep tradition of FERPA-abuse “excellence,” UNC was smacked down by a state-court judge in a 2011 ruling for trying to categorize coaches’ cellphone records, athletes’ parking tickets and other non-educational documents as FERPA records.
3. Ohio State University
Not far behind North Carolina is Ohio State University, home of the Buckeyes. It’s been a challenging place for journalism for a long time; in 2010, campus police detained, but ultimately didn’t file criminal charges against a photojournalist for The Lantern student newspaper. The university police justified the detainment by alleging the photographer’s press badge was “fraudulent” because it was signed by a student editor and not the paper’s faculty adviser.
That’s not all. In 2011, ESPN sued the university for violating records law when OSU denied several open records requests. At the time, ESPN was investigating the OSU football program’s infamous “Tattoo-gate” scandal involving athletes accused of receiving forbidden gifts under the regime of head coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State managed to convince an appeals court that essentially all of Tressel’s records – even emails he exchanged with a booster -- were “education records” exempt from disclosure.
It’s not just students who have trouble getting answers from Ohio’s flagship institution. The Columbus Dispatch recently reported, in a story released during Sunshine Week, that OSU routinely ignores, delays or claims unfounded exemptions to frustrate public-records requests that other comparable colleges readily fulfill.
4. University of Central Florida
The nation’s second-largest public university is an upstart in the game of public-records obstructionism, without the pedigree of more-established secrecy powerhouses. But the Knights have made a name for themselves in a short period of time. Last year, KnightNews.com, the campus’s digital newspaper, filed two lawsuits against the university for breaching open meetings and records laws.
The university’s aggressiveness in fighting to conceal student-government records that other colleges routinely make public – lawyers for UCF have repeatedly demanded that a tiny student-run news outlet pay the university’s bankruptingly large legal fees – earned the editors of KnightNews national recognition as winners of the 2016 College Press Freedom Award.
In yet another lawsuit in 2014, a judge ruled that the university did not err when it withheld fraternity discipline records, citing FERPA -- even though records of disciplinary cases against Greek houses have been harmlessly released in other states with no FERPA consequences.
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