N.Y. university punishes editor, adviser for publishing student government president’s grades

Long Island University officials punished the editorand adviser of the school’s student newspaper for publishing an article thatdisclosed the grades of a former Student Government Associationpresident.

Adviser Mike Bush said he was fired from his position thismonth and Justin Grant was suspended from the newspaper for a month two daysafter the article appeared in the Jan. 21 edition of the Seawanhaka. Thearticle, written by Grant, cited the SGA president’s grades as a possible causefor his sudden resignation.

Bush said administrators at the privateuniversity in Brooklyn also retaliated against the newspaper by changing thelocks of its offices to keep editors out. The paper has not been published sincethe January issue. The university appointed the school’s director of studentactivities, Karlene Jackson-Thompson, as the newspaper’s adviser.

Schoolofficials said the adviser and editor were punished for violating studentprivacy laws. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) imposesfinancial penalties on schools that release students’ educational records,including grades, without their consent. The Department of Education, however,has said that the federal law only applies to university employees or thoseacting on their behalf, not student newspapers.

Bush, a professor at theuniversity, said that while he did e-mail the grades to Grant, he was not thesource for the information.

Bush said a Seawanhaka reporterlearned that the SGA president resigned because of “personal reasons.” Thereporter spoke with sources who divulged that the SGA president had failed twoclasses, which forced him to resign. Grant was out of the office at the time ofthe discovery, so Bush said he e-mailed Grant the information.

Bush saidhe then discussed with Grant whether to publish the grades.

“I told[Grant] that, yes, I would publish the grades” if I were him, Bush said. “Butultimately the decision was up to him.”

Bush said the school is punishingGrant because of his decision to print the grades. He said in addition to thesuspension, grant is losing scholarship money he would earn as editor, whichpays for about 75 percent of Grant’s tuition.

Grant wrote a column in theJan. 28 edition of the paper apologizing to the SGA president, but he explainedhis reasoning behind publishing the student’s grades.

“My decision toinclude the grades was based on the rationale that when an elected officialresigns from office, the constituents have a right to know why,” Grant wrote.”This wasn’t a personal attack on [the SGA president]. This was based on someelementary journalistic principles we are taught in journalism classes here atLIU.”

According to a Feb. 10 Newsday article, Bernadette Walker,LIU’s dean of students, said publishing a student’s grades, regardless of theirstatus as a campus leader, is a violation of privacy.

Bush said it isunclear when the weekly newspaper will resume publication.

Peg Byron,director of public relations, said the journalism students have full access tothe newspaper room, but “the students haven’t told us if they’re going topublish or not.”

The Student Press Law Center could not reach the formerSGA president for comment.

SPLC View: There are two things to keep inmind with this case.

First, while there might be some that would questionhis editorial decision, the editor broke no laws in publishing the grades of theformer SGA president. There is no FERPA problem. The federal law does notprohibit college student newspapers from publishing accurate, lawfully obtainedinformation. There is also no common law or statutory invasion of privacyproblem. In this case, the SGA president’s grades were apparently the reason forhis resignation. As such, the grades were newsworthy and “newsworthiness” is adefense to an invasion of privacy claim. (It’s also worth pointing out that NewYork does not recognize a common law tort of invasion of privacy).

Thesecond thing to keep in mind is that LIU is a private university. Privateschools are not required to give journalists the same First Amendmentprotections as those attending public schools. Had this happened at a publicuniversity, LIU’s act in suspending the editor (and possible even in firing theadviser) would clearly be unlawful. Still, while LIU officials are not subjectto the First Amendment, they may be bound by other laws, particularly where theyhave contractually agreed to behave in a certain way. For example, according toLIU’s Student Code of Conduct, “[The university] is committed to preserving theexercise of any right guaranteed to the individual by the constitution.” Thusthe university’s actions might be considered a breach of the editor andadviser’s contractual rights.