Call it deja vu. Sort of. It was just about nine years ago that Traci Bauer, then-editor of the Standard, the student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University, filed suit against her school after campus security officials refused to give the newspaper incident reports about an alleged rape involving a varsity basketball player. The school claimed that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, prohibited their release. In a landmark ruling a year later, a federal district court judge in Missouri found the school’s claims baseless and ordered the school to release the records immediately. Bauer’s case marked the beginning of the end for schools nationwide trying to cover up campus police records.
Now the battle is for access to campus court records. And once again SMSU looks to be ground zero.
Last month President Clinton signed legislation that, among other things, clarifies that the Buckley Amendment cannot be used by schools to avoid releasing the outcome of campus disciplinary proceedings when crimes of violence are at issue. On the day the law was signed, Patrick Nolan, the news assignment editor at the Standard, requested a copy of student judicial actions for 1997 through November 1998. He also asked for specific information on an assault that occurred in September.
SMSU officials balked, admitting they were unclear about how to respond to Nolan’s request given the new law. In late November they filed a petition in state court seeking clarification regarding whether they may release the names of students who have committed violent crimes on campus as well as statistical information about the student judicial system.
“We want to make sure that what we are doing with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act we can do under the open records law,” Dean of Students Bob Glenn told the local newspaper. “We want the court to say, ‘Yeah, you are on track.”
This case should be a no-brainer for the court and should help pave the way for other student reporters seeking similar information. Federal law now clearly allows schools to release information about the outcome of disciplinary proceedings — including names of students convicted — where the proceedings involve crimes of violence or non-forcible sex offenses. Hopefully, however, most schools will be able to make that determination themselves without having to go to court.