Tenn. law forces public colleges to release judicial records

TENNESSEE — Student journalists who attend public colleges and universities in Tennessee are now entitled to more information about violent crimes and sex offenses committed by their peers, following the passage of a law signed in May by Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Under the amendment to the Tennessee Public Records Act, the state’s public schools must release the names of students who are disciplined for committing a violent crime or sex offense, along with the sanction imposed on them. This information used to be considered student education records, which are exempt from disclosure under the state open-records law.

The law now goes a step beyond federal law by taking advantage of a provision in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which states that universities and colleges may release the names of perpetrators of certain offenses. 

Under FERPA, a school can lose its federal funding if it has a policy or practice of permitting the release of students’ “education records” without receiving consent. FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment, was amended in 1998 to allow, but not require, the release of the outcome of disciplinary proceedings where a student is found responsible for behavior that would constitute a crime of violence or nonforcible sex offense. 

Now public schools in Tennessee will have to release the information.

Private colleges are not required to comply with the amendment to the state open-records law. Those schools were already able to release information as FERPA permits but disclosure was not and is still not mandatory. 

Tim Rogers, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Tennessee, said the legislation represents a modification in his school’s policy. He said the college would comply with the legislation if it received a request for information concerning disciplinary records.

“We aren’t in the business of attempting to shield records when they’re open,” he said.

Candy Justice, the faculty adviser for student newspaper at the University of Memphis, said that the law now will allow student journalists in Tennessee to report on criminal offenses that were once kept confidential by schools.

“We have found that all universities … tend to find all kinds of loopholes to keep us from getting the information we need,” Justice said. “If [a case] didn’t go to the public authorities and it only went to the university for discipline, we just couldn’t find out about it.”

It has not yet been determined whether the law, which went into effect on August 10, will require disclosure of past sanctions imposed on students, said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a Pennsylvania-based victim advocacy organization. Most likely, he said records that date back before FERPA was amended in 1998 will not be released.

The law’s sponsors, Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, have asked the state attorney general to clarify the scope of the reporting requirements, Carter said.

LAW: 2003 Tenn. Pub. Acts 105