Ohio Supreme Court opens campus disciplinary records

ARLINGTON, VA — The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal help to student journalists around the country, says that an Ohio Supreme Court decision yesterday should help unlock the door to previously secret campus court proceedings and is advising college reporters to press school officials for more information.

In its decision, The Miami Student v. Miami University, 1997 W.L. 365074 (Ohio Sup. Ct., July 9, 1997), the court ruled 5-2 that student journalists at Miami University of Ohio have the right to see records of the school’s campus court proceedings. The court said the school could withhold the names and social security numbers of students identified in the reports because the student newspaper had not requested that information.

Jennifer Markiewicz and Emily Hebert, now former editors of The Miami Student, filed suit against the university to obtain disciplinary records that the school claimed to be protected from disclosure by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly known as the Buckley Amendment. That law allows the government to impose penalties on schools that release a student’s “education records” without the student’s permission.

The student newspaper claimed that the campus court records they sought — which involved non-academic conduct — did not fall under the law’s definition of “education records.”

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed. It determined that while the Miami University Disciplinary Board (UDB) hears cases involving violation of the student conduct code, it also hears criminal cases, such as physical and sexual assault, which were not always turned over to local law enforcement officials.

Writing for the majority of the court, Judge Francis Sweeney said, “The UDB records…do not contain educationally related information, such as grades or other academic data, and are unrelated to academic performance, financial aid, or scholastic performance. Consequently, we…hold that university disciplinary records are not ‘education records’ as defined by FERPA.”

In reaching that conclusion, Sweeney said the court had adopted the reasoning of the 1993 Georgia Supreme Court case, Red & Black Publishing Co. v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Georgia, a case that had earlier rejected FERPA’s application to campus disciplinary hearings and records by officials at the University of Georgia.

“We are delighted with the court’s decision,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, whose group worked closely with The Miami Student staff and found the student editors legal representation.

“For years we have been battling university officials and the U.S. Department of Education over their unreasonably broad interpretation of FERPA. Congress never intended for records that deal with criminal offenses such as rape, assault or arson to be considered ‘education records. It’s unfortunate that it requires such costly and time-consuming litigation to set these schools straight.”

Goodman is encouraging all college news media to use the Ohio and Georgia decisions to force schools to open up their campus courts.

“It’s clear the law is on their side. It’s time to end the secrecy,” Goodman said. Attorney Marc Mezibov, whose Cincinnati law firm agreed to represent the student newspaper pro bono, said the decision is binding on all school in Ohio, and has implications nationwide.

“In terms of schools across the country, it is certainly persuasive authority, and follows the example of Red & Black.”

The Georgia and Ohio Supreme Courts are the only state supreme courts to rule on public access to campus disciplinary records.

The Ohio decision comes just one week before Congress holds a hearing on a campus crime bill that would formally amend FERPA to exclude campus disciplinary records from its “education records” definition. The bill, called the “Accuracy in Campus Crime Reporting Act of 1997” (ACCRA), HR 715, would also require almost all public and private schools to more accurately report campus crime statistics and make available a daily police blotter for public inspection.

For More Information Contact:

Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center(703) 807-1904

Marc Mezibov, Attorney for The Miami Student, Sirkin, Pinales, Mezibov & Schwartz(513) 721-4876

Jennifer Markiewicz, former editor, The Miami Student(610) 768-9330

For information on the ACCRA hearings scheduled for July 17, 9:30 a.m., 2175 Rayburn House Office Building, contact:

House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, Training and Life-Long Learning(202) 225-4527

Congressman John J. Duncan Jr., primary sponsor of H.R. 715(202) 225-5435

Security on Campus, Inc.(610) 768-9330