Florida Supreme Court upholds ruling prohibiting release of student records

The Florida Supreme Court has declined to review a lower court’s decision that Florida students’ records cannot be released to the public even when personally identifiable information is concealed.

The case involved a Florida television station that filed public records requests in December 2001 and January 2002 for student discipline records and a school bus surveillance tape. WFTV was planning a broadcast about a series of incidents on Seminole County school buses. When school officials denied the requests, the station filed suit.

In May 2004, the state’s Fifth District Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that student educational records are “confidential and exempt” from Florida Open Records laws even if identifying information about students is removed. The school board cited a Florida statute that states, “Every pupil or student shall have a right of privacy with respect to the educational records kept on him or her.”

The TV station appealed to the state Supreme Court, which issued an order on Dec. 23, declining to review the appeals court’s decision.

Jonathan Kaney, the TV station’s attorney, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the Supreme Court’s decision to let the ruling stand.

“I thought the court would want to make clear that … once you truly anonymize a record, there’s no privacy at stake,” Kaney said. The federal education records privacy law, FERPA, only regulates the release of records that contain personally identifiable information about students. Many state education records privacy laws are based on the federal statute.

Kaney said he has been approached by open-records advocates in Florida to eliminate some exemptions in the state open-records law. Legislation could force school districts across the state to interpret the open-records law in a consistent manner, Kaney said.

SPLC View: This is a surprising and disappointing ruling – particularly from a state that once had a reputation as being supportive of open government. It is hard to understand how a student’s privacy is compromised by the disclosure of a record that everyone agrees contains no information that could be used to identify anyone. Sadly, in this case, those who might have benefited from the disclosure of information about school bus safety are now out of luck until the state law is changed or the Florida Supreme Court chooses to hear another case on the subject. Fortunately for journalists in the other 49 states, however, this ruling only interprets Florida law and its impact should not generally extend outside that state’s borders.