Newspaper sues Wash. university over access to notes from student interviews

WASHINGTON — A commercial newspaper issuing the University of Washington over access to the notes of interviews with18 student athletes conducted as part of an internal investigation into a formerteam doctor.The public university conducted an investigation intoalleged overmedication of its softball team by coaches and the team’sdoctor. In the internal investigation, the university interviewed coaches,administrators, doctors, athletic trainers and 18 current and former HuskyWomen’s softball players. In April 2004, the university issued areport on the investigation, which included information provided by the 18students.Following a request by Tacoma’s The NewsTribune, the university disclosed more than 1,000 pages of handwritteninterview notes, but would not release notes from the student interviews. Thenewspaper stipulated that all personally identifiable information contained inthe notes could be blacked-out.“[The News Tribune]wants all of the content of the interviews, but it is the university’scontention is that they are protected under federal privacy law,” said BobRoseth, director of the office of news and information at the university. Headded that the university does not comment on lawsuits in progress.ButBill Holt, the newspaper’s lawyer, said the University of Washington isinterpreting the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act toonarrowly.“The university has taken the position that they arebound by FERPA, and any records that refer to a student is considered to be astudent record and they cannot release any of it — they cannot even redactit,” Holt said.FERPA is a federal law that withholds funds fromeducational institutions which have “a policy of permitting the release ofeducation records (or personally identifiable information contained therein …of students without written consent.”A brief Holt submitted toJudge James Doerty stated, “[The News Tribune] wishes to see thenotes of the interviews to find out what more these students said that was notdisclosed in the report and to confirm the accuracy of thereport.”The newspaper contends that its open-records request issimilar to a subpoena, which is exempt from FERPA. It also asserts that redactedrecords are not education records, citing cases where campus law enforcementrecords were declared FERPA compliant.“There are provisions inFERPA and the Washington Public Records Act that can provide access to therecords and at the same time protect the legitimate interest of thestudents,” Holt stated in the newspaper’s brief. Universityemployees who conducted the interviews submitted statements to the courtclaiming that the students could be easily identified — even if theirnames were blacked out — because of the personal nature of the informationthey obtained during the interviews. The university provided the 18interviewed students with release forms that, if returned to the university,would allow for the interview notes to be released. No students returned theforms.In its brief, the university counters that the student interviewnotes fit under the definition of “education records” and thus aresubject to FERPA protection.Judge Doerty is expected to make a ruling byJune 25.