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Wisc. student newspaper awarded settlement in public records lawsuit

February 16, 2010

WISCONSIN -- The UWM Post at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was awarded a settlement last week in its public records lawsuit against the university.

This settlement comes after the student newspaper's former Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Anderson made an open records request for the agendas, minutes and recordings of Union Policy Board meetings at the university. The board, composed of students, faculty members and administrators, allocates office space to student organizations, among its other duties, Anderson said.

Though his request was not entirely denied, the records he received were redacted of information, like student names, Anderson said. The university cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as their reason, even though the meetings had been open to the public.

In the settlement, the university agreed to release the original, unredacted versions of the records and the Post was awarded more than $11,000 to cover its legal fees, according to its Web site.

Anderson and the Post's attorney, Robert Dreps of Godfrey & Kahn S.C. of Madison, Wisc., called this a big victory for student newspapers, since student journalists are those who most frequently run into FERPA issues when requesting information.

"It's hard to say whether the problem lies with the schools and their interpretation of FERPA or with the U.S. Department of Education and its interpretation of FERPA," Dreps said. This was only one of five or six records issues Anderson brought to attorney Robert Dreps, who represented him, which cited FERPA as grounds for denial, Dreps said. This was the case they thought was most likely to succeed in a lawsuit and garner the university's attention.

"This wasn't the first instance where the university has denied in whole or in part a record request, but it seemed to us that it was the most blatant," Anderson said. "It was the clearest case of over-complying with FERPA."

Since the Department of Education's regulations are "extremely broad," it can be difficult for schools to know how to interpret them, Dreps said.

Vice Chancellor for University Relations Tom Luljak said it was because of this lack of clarity in the law that the school decided to protect student privacy.

"However," Luljak said, "we respect the advice of the state Department of Justice and are satisfied that the case has been settled. In the future we will continue to evaluate each records request on its own merits as we are required to do under the law."

By Katie Maloney, SPLC staff writer

© 2010 Student Press Law Center

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