Federal appeals court prohibits release of student disciplinary records under FERPA

OHIO — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuittoday upheld an injunction sought by the U.S. Department of Educationto keep Ohio State University and Miami University from releasingstudent disciplinary records covered by the Family EducationalRights and Privacy Act to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"We’re disappointed," said Scott Jaschik, editorof The Chronicle of Higher Education. "We continueto think that this issue is a very important one, and that it’sessential that journalists and the public understand how campusjudicial systems work. That’s impossible to do if you don’tknow who’s involved."

The question of how much information should be released arosewhen The Chronicle of Higher Education requested the resultsof student disciplinary hearings from Miami University and OhioState University — with names and identifying information intact– under the same Ohio open-records law the student newspaper at Miami University used to obtain similar records in 1997.

After the schools began to comply with The Chronicle‘srequest under the previous ruling, the Department of Educationfiled for an injunction preventing the schools from releasingthe information to The Chronicle.

A federal district court granted the Department of Education’s injunctionand a motion for summary judgment, and The Chronicle appealedto the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to obtain theinformation.

The opinion handed down Thursday grants the Department of Educationthe authority to seek injunctive relief against schools that release records covered by FERPA despitethe law’s lack of explicit language to apply such a remedy. Justlast week in Gonzaga University v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Courtrefused to allow individual students to sue over the release ofeducation records under FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment, because the law lacked that explicit provision.

"The ruling in U.S. v. Miami University reinforcesthe need for Congress to fully acknowledge the distinction betweenrecords dealing with campus crime and [those dealing with] gradesthat they have been moving toward incrementally for over a decade,"said Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus,a campus crime watchdog group.

By rejecting the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling, the decisioneffectively allowed the federal appeals court to determine whatis covered by the Ohio state open-records law.

"With some very twisted logic, the Sixth Circuit has saidthat it, not the Ohio Supreme Court, has the final authority tointerpret the state open-records law," said Mark Goodman,executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "Suchaction is without precedent and is clearly without constitutionalauthority."

Jaschik said Chronicle lawyers are studying the decision. He is unsure whether the publication will appeal.

Goodman stressed that the decision as it stands will only perpetuatethe concealment of crime information from the campus community.

"The court’s ruling means that schools will continue tocover-up serious criminal misbehavior of privileged students byhandling the incidents in secret campus disciplinary proceedingsand never reporting them to the police or local prosecutors,"Goodman said.

"For the young woman raped by a star athlete or the studentactivities fund ripped-off by embezzlement from a student governmentofficer, this ruling means that schools will continue to use FERPAto thwart public access, ensuring that there will be more victimslike you."

Read our previous coverage of the case from our archives.