School asks students to sign 'vague' confidentiality agreement, editor says

OKLAHOMA — In what a school official has called a “breakdown of communication,”  student journalists were told last week that they would not receive theirpaychecks if they refused to sign aconfidentiality agreement thatprohibited the disclosure of certain university information.

Copiesof the agreement were sent July 20 to the office ofThe Daily O’Collegian, thestudent newspaper at Oklahoma State University, with a list of students whoneeded to sign the agreement before getting paid. Among other things, thedocument required that the students agree “not to access or view anyinformation other than what is required to perform [their] specifiedresponsibilities” and “not to make inquiries about any individualfor any person or party who does not have proper authorization to access suchinformation.”

O’Collegian Editor inChief Lenzy Krehbiel said she has advised her staff not to sign theagreement.

“The way this agreement is worded, it’s sovague that the things they are specifically trying to protect are materials thatstudent journalists wouldn’t go after, such as social security numbers, orit’s information that’s already protected under the state openmeetings and open records acts, like employment records, budgets, things of thatnature,” Krehbiel said. “The way it’s worded it makes italmost impossible for one of our reporters to do his or herjob.”

University Director of Communications Gary Shutt said thestudents were inadvertently given a copy of an old confidentiality agreementwritten earlier this year. He said administrators had created the originalagreement for all university employees after a school laptop computer thatcontained some sensitive student information was stolen.

Shutt saidschool officials are working to draft a new version of the agreement becausesome faculty and staff had voiced concerns that the original was too

“punitive.” He said the committee that is writing the new agreementhas not yet decided if student journalists will be asked to signit.

“It was kind of a breakdown of communication, that we werechanging this form but the old form was still out there,” Shutt said.“When we decided to do away with that form, to revise it, we didn’tgo out and get all the old forms.”

Shutt said the intent of theagreement was to protect only sensitive student information such as grade pointaverages, social security numbers and financial data. And even though thefederal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act already guards thisinformation from the public, Shutt said the agreement would communicate toemployees the importance of following the law.

“I think this isjust another way of enforcing to employees that they really need to protect thisinformation,” Shutt said. “We had an incident where a lot of thisinformation got out there. Whether this agreement would have made a difference,who knows, but I think it’s just another way to remind employees of theirresponsibility and their obligation.”

But Krehbiel said lawslike FERPA should be enough.

“I have a right to ask, ‘Howmuch does my professor make?’ or, ‘Why was this person fired?’

because they are state employees,” she said. “I can understandwanting to protect social security numbers and grade point averages, butthat’s covered underFERPA.”

O’CollegianManaging Editor Jaclyn Cosgrove was the first student on staff to receive theagreement, and she signed it. She said that soon after signing it, she consultedwith her media law professor and had the agreement shredded.

Cosgrovesaid the agreement the student journalists received was unclear about whatinformation should remain “confidential.”

“I feltlike if we were given this and we signed it, we would be pretty much be a publicrelations office for OSU,” she said. “And if someone called and gaveus a news tip, that was one of my main concerns. Because who gets to saywhat’s confidential and what’s not?”

Cosgrove saidshe thinks local media coverage of the incident had something to do with theuniversity’s decision not to require students to sign this version of theagreement.

“All of sudden they changed their tone when it wasin the press that we were being forced to sign it,” she said. “Itwas like ‘Oh, we didn’t mean it,’ and our communicationsdirector said ‘Oh, we forgot to tell people.’ How could youforget?”