Virginia High Court Rules that High School Student Government Election Tally can be Kept Secret

VIRGINIA — Free and open government elections may be a source of pride to most Americans but don’t tell that to some Virginia high school students.The Virginia Supreme Court provided returning students with an early civics lesson last week when it ruled that the state’s open records law does not require schools to release the number of votes received by individual candidates in a public high school student government election.

The case began in May 1995 after officials at Centreville High School named the winners of the student government election but refused to release the specific vote totals to Lucas Wall, then editor in chief of the Centreville Sentinel, the school’s student newspaper. Wall sued, claiming that the totals were “official records,” subject to disclosure under the state’s open records law.

Among those running for office in the election were candidates for a county-wide Student Advisory Committee, whose members were responsible for electing a paid student representative to the county school board.

The state supreme court assumed that the vote tallies were “official records,” but ruled that they were nevertheless exempt under a provision in the law that allowed officials to withhold “scholastic records.” The court noted that the law defines scholastic records as “materials containing information about a student.”

The same exemption applies to Viginia’s public colleges and universities. Under the ruling, a public university in the state could refuse to release its student government election vote totals — and a number of other “scholastic records” — as well.

Wall has said that he and other student journalists in the state plan to lobby state lawmakers to amend the “scholastic records” exemption.

Case Name: Wall v. Fairfax County School Board, No. 951927 (Va. Sup. Ct. September 13, 1996)