Decision on records will not affect ISU

Lisa Cassady

A recent federal court ruling prohibiting two Ohio universities from releasing student disciplinary records struck a blow to First-Amendment activists who say those files should not be covered under laws protecting the privacy of students’ educational records.

The U.S. Sixth District Court decision on March 20 overturned a July 1997 ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that stated Miami (of Ohio) University administrators must honor their student newspaper’s request for student judicial records.

The state court maintained that student disciplinary files should not be considered educational records and that the university was required to turn over the records to comply with Ohio’s open-records laws.

After the 1997 decision, the Chronicle of Higher Education also requested disciplinary files from Miami University and Ohio State University, which prompted the U.S. Department of Education to file a suit to prevent schools from complying with the Chronicle’s request.

The decision is just another battle in a continuing struggle between free-press activists, who say disciplinary records are essentially crime records and should be open to the public, and university officials, who maintain that they can not release judicial records because it would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), otherwise known as the Buckley Amendment.

Paul Tanaka, director of University Legal Services, said Iowa State takes a stance similar to many universities.

“We comply with the policy of FERPA and do not disclose disciplinary records. We regard confidentiality of those records. Even if the [Miami University] ruling is overturned, it will not have a effect on us,” Tanaka said.

Barbara Mack, associate professor of journalism and mass communication, said she is not surprised school officials are not too keen on opening their student disciplinary records.

“Why would the universities go to the Federal Appeals Court and say, ‘Please open our records on campus crime?'” asked Mack, an attorney who specializes in First-Amendment issues.

Mack said she did think it was interesting that the Department of Education got involved with the case, and she guessed the agency would be taking a more active role in the future to assist universities in their legal battles.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said this is the first time the Department of Education has joined schools in court to keep judicial records confidential.

“This is the first case that the Department of Education filed to prohibit the release of student records, but they have held this stance for a decade now,” Goodman said. “The Department of Education has been behind the cover-up of crime by universities, and this is just another example of it.”

Goodman said he thought the Ohio case would probably not go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, but he did predict an eventual showdown in court.

“I tend to think that this case will not go that far. It is more likely another case will come up or that Congress will intervene at some point,” he said.

He also said the issue is relevant on almost every college campus, as few schools have been willing to release information without a legal battle.

“There are not real figures out there about the number of schools that release this kind of information, but almost all schools do not,” Goodman said.