Ohio court opens discipline records

OHIO — The Ohio Supreme Court has handed down a ruling that will open one school1s records previously kept from the public and help open secret campus judicial proceeding records in public universities across the state.The court said student newspaper reporters at Miami University of Ohio have the right to see records of the school1s campus court proceedings, and that records of disciplinary proceedings are not “education records” protected by federal law from disclosure.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 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly known as the Buckley Amendment.FERPA is a federal law that allows the government to impose penalties on schools that release a student’s “education records” without the student’s permission. The student editors claimed that the campus court records ‘ many of which involved criminal conduct ‘ were not “education records.”Although the school had given The Miami Student some information regarding campus crimes, information such as the name of the student involved, location, time and date of the incident were deleted.The university argued that by disclosing this information, students could be identified, which the school claimed would violate FERPA.But the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed with the university’s interpretation of FERPA. Judge Francis Sweeney wrote for the majority of the court, and referred to Red & Black Publishing Co. v. Board of Regents, a 1993 case that opened campus disciplinary records at the University of Georgia.The court determined that the Miami University Disciplinary Board (UDB) hears cases of infractions of school rules, but also hears criminal cases. Because of these criminal proceedings, the court concluded that the Disciplinary Board hearings are nonacademic in nature.”The UDB records, therefore, do not contain educationally related information, such as grades or other academic data, and are unrelated to academic performance, financial aid, or scholastic performance,” Sweeney wrote. “Consequently, we adopt the reasoning of the Red & Black decision, and hold that university disciplinary records are not ‘education records’ as defined in FERPA.”But the court did state that because The Miami Student did not request names and social security numbers to be included on the records in question, the university does not have to disclose that information in this instance.Markiewicz said the court1s decision is a big victory for the collegiate media. “It is a tremendous step for student safety. A lot of students don’t know that these secret court proceedings are going on,” she said. “I just hope student newspapers take advantage of the freedom they have been given.”Marc Mezibov, attorney for The Miami Student, said the decision is binding on all state schools 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,” Mezibov said.Markiewicz agreed that the decision will have state and national impact. “This will be an eye-opener,” she said. “This movement [to open disciplinary records] is just gaining momentum.”The Georgia and Ohio Supreme Courts are the only state supreme courts to rule on public access to campus disciplinary records.Carolyn Carlson, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and current chair of its Campus Courts Task Force, said the ruling is important, but the pace that states are moving at in opening campus courts is too slow.”The problem is that it took four years to get the second favorable high court ruling,” Carlson said.”At this rate it will take almost two centuries for all 50 states to stop universities and colleges from using secret campus courts.”