Arlington, Va. — Media groups today questioned the authorityand the motives of the U.S. Department of Education in seekinglegal action to keep campus crime records secret.
At issue is a complaint filed Thursday (Jan. 22) in U.S. DistrictCourt in Columbus. The complaint seeks to enjoin two Ohio universitiesfrom releasing student disciplinary records related to campuscrimes.
“This is an unusual course for a federal agency to take,”said Fred Brown, national president of the Society of ProfessionalJournalists. “No federal agency should be able to circumventthe courts and keep state records a secret.”
The highest court in Ohio ruled in July that the state openrecords law requires a state university to release student disciplinaryrecords to the public and the media.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request by MiamiUniversity to hear an appeal.
The student newspaper at Miami University of Ohio had suedasking for records of the school’s campus court proceedings, manyof which involved crimes committed by students.
The university refused and lost the case before the state supremecourt.
Both the Student Press Law Center and the Society of ProfessionalJournalists decried the use of the federal court to delay releaseof the records.
The Department of Education maintains that the release of therecords is a violation of the Family Educational Rights and PrivacyAct (FERPA), often referred to as the Buckley Amendment. FERPAsays schools that release “education records” withouta student’s permission can be denied federal funding. The OhioSupreme Court ruling explicitly said that disciplinary recordsare not education records under FERPA.
The Department’s complaint claims that the release of disciplinaryrecords by Miami University and Ohio State University to TheChronicle of Higher Education constituted a violation of FERPA.The Department is asking for an injunction to prevent the releaseof additional records and a declaration that universities’ actionsviolated FERPA.
“The Department of Education has once again made clearthat it is more concerned about school’s that want to cover upcampus crime than it is with the health and safety of those whocould be victims,” said Mark Goodman, executive directorof the Student Press Law Center. “One would think that rulingsby state supreme courts in both Ohio and Georgia that said FERPAdoesn’t apply to campus disciplinary records involving criminalactivity would have prompted the Department to give up this campaignof secrecy.”
Goodman also said there is no legal authority for the federalagency to go to court for potential violations of FERPA, callingthis case “unprecedented.”
“Even if their interpretation of FERPA was accurate, thesole remedy for violations of the statute is withdrawal of federalfunding. The Department of Education is clearing making up thelaw as it goes along.”
HR 175, The Accuracy in Campus Crime Reporting Act, is currentlypending in Congress. The bill seeks to clarify the federal lawas well as guarantee that campus crime reports and police logsare public records.
The bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., andis supported by SPJ and other groups concerned about campus crime,including the national victims organization, Security on Campus.
Mark Goodman, executive director, Student Press Law Center(703) 807-1904
Kyle E. Niederpruem, freedom of information chair, Societyof Professional Journalists(800) 669-7827