Wis. Supreme Court rules that university must open applicant data

WISCONSIN — In a victory that may lead to easier mediaaccessibility to school admission records, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruledTuesday that University of Wisconsin officials must comply with open-recordsrequests and release information about applicants that does not compromiseindividual identities.Reversing a state court of appeals, the courtruled that exemptions under federal and state law do not allow the board ofregents to deny the release of the information sought by law student J. MarshallOsborn, including applicants’ grade point averages, test scores, race,gender and ethnicity.“[The decision] means that public schoolswon’t be able to hide admissions data that helps show the extent to which theyare engaged in racial and ethnic admissions discrimination,” said RogerClegg, legal defense director for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nationaladvocacy group organization that opposes racial preferences in collegeadmissions.In 1998, the university denied several of Osborn’sopen-records requests seeking applicant data based on exemptions in both thefederal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Wisconsin stateopen-records law. Osborn, represented by the Center for EqualOpportunity, filed suit in federal court to compel the university to comply. The state supreme court reversed an appellate court decision Tuesday,concluding the university’s contention that the information was considered“education records,” and thus exempt under FERPA because the datadid not identify individual applicants.“We conclude that only ifthe open records request seeks information that would make a student’sidentity traceable, may a custodian rely on FERPA to deny the request on thebasis that it seeks personally identifiable information,” Judge N. PatrickCrooks wrote for the court.The court refused to address the disclosureof information specifically for students who were not enrolled because it foundthat the requested records of enrolled students, which would garner higherprivacy protection under FERPA, were open.The court also rejected theuniversity’s denial of records under state law, agreeing with Osborn that“Wisconsin prefers open government and public accountability unless thereis an exceptionally good reason for confidentiality.”The StudentPress Law Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed afriend-of-the-court brief in support of Osborn, arguing that, in line with thestate open-records law, public access should only be denied in exceptionalcases.The court agreed, reasoning that since the records requestedduring oral arguments did not contain personally identifiable information,releasing the records would present only a minimal risk to students’privacy that was superceded by public interest.“We have balancedthe public policy interests involved, and have concluded that because therequested information is not personally identifiable, there is no overridingpublic policy interest in keeping the records confidential,” the opinionread.Osborn said the records were to be used to analyze and compare thedata regarding admissions policies and practices of publicinstitutions.Alan Lee, Wisconsin assistant attorney general, said thatthe state was satisfied with the decision because it was based on a differentrequest than was originally presented to the university. “Withwhat they originally asked for, even if we had redacted the obvious identifiers,the information was so specific that you’d still be able to identifypeople, especially in the smaller schools, like medical schools,” Leesaid. “At oral arguments, they whittled that down to five or six differentbits of information.”Had Osborn originally requested theinformation as he did in the oral arguments, Lee said there was a “verygood chance” the university would have released it.The state willnot appeal.

View the court’s decision, courtesy of the State Bar of Wisconsin.Read our previous coverage.