High court limits privacy law

WASHINGTON, D.C. ‘ In a ruling that could mean easier access to campus crime information, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 20 that individuals do not have the right to sue a school for releasing records covered by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In a 7-2 ruling, the Court decided that individual students cannot seek damages from institutions for the release of personal information regulated by FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment.

The decision limits what could have been a chilling effect on the news media from schools fearing lawsuits and thus tightening their reign on student records.

The 1974 statute prohibits all federally funded institutions from releasing individual students’ ‘education records’ without the prior written consent of students or their parents. The only remedy for violations explicitly provided in the statute is the withholding of federal funding when the U.S. Department of Education finds the school has engaged in a ‘policy or practice’ of releasing such records.

‘[W]here a statute provides no indication that Congress intends to create new individual rights, there is no basis for a private suit,’ Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the five-person majority. The decision keeps enforcement of FERPA within the Department of Education.

Justice David Souter, joined by Steven Breyer, filed a concurring opinion, stating that FERPA does not imply private lawsuits because the law itself is ‘broad and nonspecific,’ leaving schools uncertain about what kinds of information they can and cannot release. The justices refused to buy into the majority’s use of a single ‘clear and unambiguous’ language test to determine whether a federal law gave an individual the right to sue.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissented, criticizing the court for ignoring a ‘new category of second-class statutory rights’ that have been created by Congress but which can no longer be enforced.

The question of private action was raised when former Gonzaga University student Ru Paster, identified in court documents only as John Doe, said university officials violated FERPA when they reported unsubstantiated sexual assault allegations to Washington state’s teacher certification office. Paster said that he failed to get state teaching certification because of the allegations.

Paster sued the Spokane, Wash., Jesuit school after it released information to the state licensing agency about the sexual assault allegations, even though he was never convicted of a crime.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturns a Washington state supreme court ruling awarding Paster $1.1 million, $450,000 of which was based on the FERPA violation.

case: Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 122 S.Ct. 2268 (2002)