Access to parking records denied

MARYLAND– The University of Maryland at College Park student newspaper, the Diamondback, has found itself in a freedom of information battle with the university over unpaid parking tickets.Following the discovery in February 1996 that Duane Simpkins, a University of Maryland basketball player, had accumulated more than $8,000 in unpaid parking fines, the Diamondback sought information from the school concerning the parking violation records of other student athletes and coaches.The Diamondback also requested to see correspondence between the NCAA and the university concerning possible rule violations by student athletes.But the university claimed that records of parking violations and letters of inquiry by the NCAA constituted education records, and were therefore protected from disclosure by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment. FERPA is a federal law that imposes penalties on schools that release student education records without the student’s permission.The actual amount of Simpkins’ fines were only made public because an NCAA official released the dollar amount to the media, claiming the NCAA is immune from the Buckley Amendment since it does not receive federal funding.The Diamondback soon after filed a lawsuit to obtain the information.In February, the Prince George’s County Circuit Court granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the Diamondback, ruling that the University of Maryland had to release the information.But the school refused and has appealed the decision.”The university has been stonewalling since the very beginning,” said Elizabeth Koch, attorney for the Diamondback.The beginning was 1996, when reporters for the Diamondback began investigating whether students were routinely parking in handicapped parking spaces and if certain students were being granted preferential treatment by the university in the paying of parking fines.The investigation was sparked by Simpkins’ NCAA-imposed three-game suspension for receiving a $2,000 loan from a former summer league coach to put a down payment on his 285 unpaid parking tickets.Diamondback sports editor David Murray then requested records disclosing the parking records of other members of the basketball team and the team’s head coach.Murray also requested copies of NCAA reports sent to the school concerning the suspension of basketball players for rule violations.In response to Murray’s requests about student records, the university cited FERPA as its reason not to disclose the information.The school has taken the position that its parking department is not a law enforcement agency. Records kept by law enforcement agencies are not protected from disclosure by the Buckley Amendment.Koch said oral argument for the case will be heard by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, some time this fall, at the request of that court.The case had been in the court of appeals, but was moved to the higher court at the end of July.Koch said although the case has moved fairly quickly through the Maryland courts, “the paper wishes that this thing could have been settled in less than two years.”In their appellate brief, the University of Maryland conceded that parking tickets themselves do not constitute education records because tickets are assigned to license plate numbers, and therefore do not identify individual students.However, the school believes records concerning unpaid parking tickets do identify individual students and are maintained by the university, therefore they should be protected by FERPA.The U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA have both filed briefs in support of the university.The NCAA has created a policy against disclosing information protected by FERPA. The policy was not created until after the staff member released the dollar amount of Simpkins’ parking fines.”This policy dates to October 1996 (after the events of the case) when the NCAA Council voted to support full compliance with Buckley Amendment,” states the NCAA brief. “Subsequent to the Council vote, mandatory educational sessions were held for the entire NCAA national office staff concerning the application of the Buckley Amendment.”The NCAA believes that violating FERPA would discourage “reporting and self-regulation” among students, student athletes and universities.”Self regulation and reporting is sure to decline if every time a college or university reported a NCAA violation it risked making the subject student-athlete the target of negative publicity in the press,” states the brief.”Such disclosure also would discourage students from voluntarily admitting concerns about NCAA compliance or squelch self-reporting altogether for fear of being tarred and feathered in the press.”However, the NCAA limited its brief to supporting the closure of “investigation, punishment and reporting of NCAA eligibility,” and did not offer a position on the release of the parking violations.The Department of Education brief, however, did imply that records of unpaid parking violations are educational records to be protected from disclosure by the Buckley Amendment.The Department in its brief contended that the circuit court was incorrect in all parts of their summary judgment to open the records, and believes the decision should be remanded.In its brief, the Department of Education interprets “education record” to mean any student record maintained by the university, regardless of content.