Federal court stops further release of campus court records

OHIOThe Chronicleof Higher Education has asked to join Miami Universityand Ohio State University as a co-defendant in a federal lawsuitbrought on January 22 by the U.S. Department of Education to preventthe schools from releasing student disciplinary records.

The Chronicle’s move follows a preliminary injunctiongranted by a U.S. district court prohibiting the universitiesfrom releasing disciplinary records that contain “personallyidentifiable information,” such as names and Social Securitynumbers.

“The public benefits from laws that promote a policy ofopenness in public records, but it also benefits from laws thatprotect the privacy of individuals,” Judge Smith said. “Releaseof the disciplinary records would violate federal law, and therebydo harm to the privacy interests Congress sought to protect. Thecourt finds that such a violation would constitute irreparableharm.”

In July 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that school disciplinaryrecords were not “education records” under the federalFamily Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as theBuckley Amendment, and therefore were subject to state open recordslaw. As part of that ruling, the court ordered Miami to releaserecords from the school’s disciplinary proceedings to the university’sstudent newspaper, The Miami Student, which had sued foraccess to the information. The Miami Student’s initialrequest did not seek students’ names. In December 1997, the U.S.Supreme Court declined to hear the case brought on appeal by MiamiUniversity.

Enabled by the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, The Chroniclerequested disciplinary records in their entirety from both Miamiand Ohio State. After the High Court allowed the state court’sruling to stand, Miami University released disciplinary recordsthat included names of accused students, but omitted Social Securitynumbers. Ohio State University also released to The Chroniclerecords from November 1995 and 1996.

In response to the schools’ disclosure of some disciplinaryrecords, the DOE filed an injunction to prevent more records frombeing released to The Chronicle and a Cincinnati newspaper.The DOE considers disciplinary records to fall within the definitionof education records under the federal privacy act, and thereforemaintains that schools would be in violation of the law if theyreleased records that might identify students.

The Chronicle’s request for records that include namesand specific incidents is to facilitate the reporting of campuscrime. According to Scott Jaschik, Deputy Managing Editor of TheChronicle, the national education newspaper has an interestin reporting on campus crime and disciplinary records becausethose topics are of interest to students, parents and facultywho are concerned about campus safety.