Information about unpaid parking tickets of student athletes and coaches as well as information about related NCAA violations must be open to the public, Maryland’s high court ruled in December
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruling came two years after The Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, filed suit against the university under the state open records law. The Diamondback went to court after learning in 1996 that University of Maryland basketball player Duane Simpkins had accumulated more than $8,000 in unpaid parking fines, many of them for parking in handicapped parking spaces, and used money supplied by a former coach to pay off the 285 violations. Simpkins was eventually punished by the NCAA for the incident. The Diamondback asked university officials for access to the parking violation records of other athletes and the head basketball coach at the school as well as correspondence with the NCAA regarding the Simpkins matter. The university refused the newspaper’s requests.
The university argued that the records of the student athletes were exempt from disclosure under the state open records law in part because they were “education records” covered by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment. The school claimed that the coach’s parking violations were exempt from disclosure as “personnel records.” A state trial court ruled in favor of the newspaper in 1996, and the university appealed that decision. The U.S. Department of Education and the NCAA both filed briefs before the state’s high court supporting the university’s refusal to disclose. Several media organizations, including the Student Press Law Center, filed briefs in support of the newspaper.
In upholding the public’s right of access to the records in question, the Maryland Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision rejected each of the school’s arguments and required all of the records to be released.
“The legislative history of [FERPA] indicates that the statute was not intended to preclude the release of any record simply because the record contained the name of a student,” the court’s opinion in Kirwan v. The Diamondback said. “Congress intended to prevent educational institutions from operating in secrecy.
“We hold that ‘education records’ within the meaning of [FERPA] do not include records of parking tickets or correspondence between the NCAA and the University regarding a student athlete accepting a loan to pay parking tickets,” the opinion concluded.
Campus crime advocates hailed the decision as another affirmation of the public’s right to crime information.
“The ruling represents another loss for those schools and the U.S. Department of Education, who have attempted to use FERPA to conceal information about criminal incidents on campus,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman.
However, The Diamondback’s attorney, Elizabeth Koch, said the newspaper will not rest easy until they have the records in their hands, which was to come 30 days after the ruling was handed down on December 8. She said that university officials have suggested that the federal government might intervene to prevent the release of the records, as they have in a case pending in Ohio against Miami University and Ohio State. (See Spring 1998 SPLC Report, page 13.) Motions to dismiss are pending before the judge in that case.
While this decision is only legally binding in Maryland, as the first “college parking ticket case” in the country it should certainly be influential elsewhere. Even more important, perhaps, is the court’s very clear statement that FERPA is not the all-purpose shield that schools have made it out to be anytime they do not want to release otherwise public records.
Case: Kirwan v. The Diamondback, 1998 W.L. 854785 (Md. Ct. App., Dec. 8, 1998)