SPLC asks Supreme Court to prevent individual lawsuits under FERPA

VIRGINIA — The Student Press Law Center and three otherorganizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S.Supreme Court in an upcoming case that questions whether individualscan sue schools and universities for violations of a federal lawthat regulates the release of student records.

The organizations argue that allowing such lawsuits would hinderthe public’s right to know and make it difficult for journaliststo obtain information from schools and universities that alreadyrestrict access to many records involving students.

The case, Gonzaga University v. Doe, will be the seconddealing with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA),also commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, that the SupremeCourt hears this term.

Former Gonzaga student Ru Paster brought a lawsuit againstthe university after graduating in 1994. Paster contends thathe cannot find work because the university, in violation of FERPA,told the Washington state teacher-certification office that hehad been accused of raping another student. Paster was never convictedof a crime.

Earlier this month, the Court sided with an Oklahoma schooldistrict, ruling that students who grade other students’ workdo not act for an educational institution. Therefore, the schoolitself does not "maintain" those records.

In that case, Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo,and in the Gonzaga case, the Center questioned whetherthe federal statute to bring a lawsuit was valid under FERPA.When Congress enacted the legislation in 1974, it did not providea remedy for an individual to bring a lawsuit. Instead, schoolsor universities could lose federal funding if found guilty.

"Under FERPA, schools have been hesitant to release importantcampus crime information for fear of a complete loss of federalfunds," the brief states. "Congress amended FERPA toaddress that problem but the specter of massive civil rightslitigation for violations over incidents such as discussing afuture teacher’s moral fitness, as in this case, or for havinga student call out a grade in class, as in a case heard this term will again lead to a clampdown on release of important publicinformation."

The Center joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of thePress, Society of Professional Journalists and Security On Campusin filing the brief. The Supreme Court will hear the case on April24.

A copy of the brief is available from the Reporters Committee. (Download Adobe Acrobat Reader, necessary to view the document on your computer.)Read our previous coverage.