The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, was enacted in 1974 in part to curb the indiscriminate release of student records by school officials. (A second part requires that schools provide students with access to their own records.) Under the law, schools that release a student's "education records" without permission can have their federal funding cut.
While the law appears reasonable on its face, the application of FERPA has resulted in considerable controversy.
One problem concerns the question: what exactly is an "education record" whose disclosure by school officials is restricted by the law?
While almost all would agree, for example, that student transcripts, test scores and teacher recommendations should be covered, many schools have used FERPA as a shield of convenience, interpreting the term to hide records that have nothing to do with a student's scholastic or academic performance if it suits their purposes. Campus crime records have been a particular source of controversy.
More recently, some school officials have improperly cited FERPA as their reason for prohibiting or restricting the publication of student names or photos in student-edited media.
Unfortunately, the myths, controversy and confusion surrounding FERPA show no sign of ending anytime soon. Hopefully, the following resources will help student media sort through the FERPA maze.
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FERPA and Access to Public Records:
Information regarding school officials' use -- and misuse -- of FERPA to limit access to information about students and educational institutions
Text of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 USC 1232g.
FERPA and Censorship:
Information regarding school officials' use -- and misuse -- of FERPA to restrict student media
FERPA Fundamentalism: How a federal law designed to protect student privacy is being misinterpreted to injure press freedom (SPLC)
Misuse of FERPA leads to nameless, faceless publications (NSPA Trends Magazine)
Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo (2002): U.S. Supreme Court clarifies FERPA, rules that students are not agents of schools (SPLC)
For special help with restrictions directed at online student media, see Administrators and online publications (NSPA Trends Magazine)
Covering Campus Crime: A Handbook for Journalists (4th Edition): The SPLC's comprehensive handbook on getting access to college crime information includes a discussion explaining why FERPA cannot be used by schools to deny access to security and police report. Also includes information about the ongoing battle over access to campus courts and judicial records.