Federal judge prohibits Ohio schools from releasing campus court records

OHIO — A federal judge refused to give a newspaper access to thestudent disciplinary records of two Ohio universities on March 20, sayingthe files qualify as education records and are protected from public releaseby federal law.

U.S. District Judge George C. Smith said Miami University of Ohio andOhio State University would be violating the federal Family EducationalRights and Privacy Act if they disclosed information about identifiablestudents’ confidential campus judicial proceedings to The Chronicleof Higher Education, which had requested the details under the stateopen-records law.

“The public, while certainly benefiting from laws that promote opennessin public records, also benefits from the privacy accorded students throughFERPA,” Smith said in the decision.”Congress, through FERPA, has balanced the interests of privacy versuspublic disclosure and the Court is in no position to second guess it.”

Counsel for The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper based in Washington,D.C., argued that the state of Ohio permitted the disclosure of disciplinaryrecords under its Public Records Act. However, Smith said in the rulingthat his job was to interpret the federal law. He said FERPA bars schoolsfrom releasing student records that include “personally identifiable information”without the student’s consent.

Editors and lawyers for The Chronicle are appealing the districtjudge’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, saidScott Jaschik, editor of The Chronicle.

The case dates back to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in July 1997 thatordered Miami University in Oxford to release disciplinary records to theMiamiStudent,the university’s student newspaper. The student paper requestedthe files in 1995 as part of a series on crime and justice at the institution,but was denied access. The state supreme court ruled that disciplinaryrecords were not FERPA-regulated “education records” and therefore werenot protected by the federal act. Miami University then asked the U.S.Supreme Court to overturn the Ohio court’s ruling, but the justices declinedto hear the case.

Soon after, The Chronicle requested the similar records from MiamiUniversity and Ohio State. Miami and Ohio State were in the process ofdisclosing the information to the newspaper when the Department of Educationintervened. It sued both universities for violating FERPA regulations byproviding personally identifiable information without the proper consentfrom adult students or parents. When neither Miami nor Ohio State challengedthe lawsuit, The Chronicle intervened as a third party defendantin the case.

In his ruling, Judge Smith refused to validate The Chronicle’s argumentthat the disciplinary records were equivalent to law-enforcement files,which can be disclosed under FERPA. Smith said that unlike campus courtrecords, police records are not created for the purpose of campus discipline.

Smith said campus judicial proceedings and records relating to thoseproceedings are not “criminal in nature,” but merely a recourse for institutionsto enforce the campus code of conduct. Schools may release the final resultsof student disciplinary cases involving crimes of violence or nonforciblesex offenses under a 1998 amendment to FERPA.

Smith said students’ personal safety and crime prevention efforts wouldnot be endangered by denying the release of disciplinary records. He citedthe Student Right-To-Know Act, in which universities are required to publishyearly statistics reporting the occurrence of crimes on campus, as sufficientnotification of campus crime incidents for the surrounding community.

“The Court believes that these disclosures are adequate to inform students,prospective students and parents about the safety of various college campuses,”Smith said in the decision. “Releasing the personally identifiable informationof the students accused or convicted of violating the university regulations,as well as information about the victims, would not further advance thepublic’s interest.”

S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, a national,nonprofit watchdog group that follows campus crime, said he was disappointedwith the district judge’s decision.

“Students need to be able to exercise oversight of campus court proceedingsso that they can have the full picture of campus crime and know if justiceis truly being done,” Carter said. “This decision will further put studentsat undue risk because they won’t be able to find out which of their fellowstudents are violent criminals.”

Jaschik said the ruling would inevitably make it more difficult foranyone to obtain campus court records.

“We’re disappointed with the decision,” he said. “We continue to thinkthat the Ohio Supreme Court decision made these records public, and thatthe public has a right to know about the way these campus judicial systemswork.”

Since 1990, Ohio had been one of two states in the nation whose highcourts had ruled in favor of allowing public disclosure of student judiciaryrecords based on state open-records laws. The other state is Georgia.

Student media and others watching the Ohio situation from Georgia areworried that the Department of Education could intervene and challengetheir state supreme court’s 1993 decision.

The Ohio ruling will not affect any universities outside of Ohio, butif Georgia students were to complain about the privacy of their records,the DOE could possibly challenge the state court’s ruling.

The SPLC press release about the case and a link to the full textof the decision are available at http://www.splc.org/newsflash_archives.asp?id=147&year=2000.