Complaint alleges Michigan State violated student's privacy by releasing report

MICHIGAN — A student at Michigan State University is askingthe Department of Education to investigate his claim that the universityviolated his privacy rights by releasing investigative records concerning hisstudent organization.

The student, Kyle Bristow, sent a complaint letter to the DOE shortly after a commercial paper,the Lansing State Journal, on March 26 posted a copy of a universityreport on complaints lodged against two student groups. The universityconducted an investigation of the groups for a possible violation of theuniversity’s anti-discrimination policy after students accused the groups– Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans — of harassingand discriminating against students based on race, gender and sexualorientation.

Students complained, for example, that Young Americans for Freedom’sblog referred to certain ethnic groups as “savages,” and at variousevents sponsored by the two organizations members allegedly called studentsderogatory names.

Michigan State University’s Office of Inclusion and InterculturalActivities conducted an investigation of the groups after eight students filedcomplaints last year. The office ultimately concluded neither group violated university policy.

Bristow is the former president of the school chapter of Young Americansfor Freedom and is still active in the organization.

Bristow argues that Michigan State University violated his rights under theFederal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits the releaseof educational records without student consent, by releasing its report on theinvestigation to the media and others who should not have had access toit.

“A report was released by the university to the media, in which itwas published online,” Bristow said to the Student Press Law Center. “The university has no right to release documents of thesort.”

Both the Lansing State Journal and Michigan State University saythat the university did not release the report to the media.

Terry Denbow, vice president for university relations for Michigan StateUniversity, said that the university did not release the report the mediabecause of the restrictions of FERPA.

“We take FERPA very seriously,” Denbow said.

Additionally, the Lansing State Journal article says the universityrefused to release the report and that “The Lansing State Journal

obtained it [the report] from one of the accused parties.” Thearticle goes on to state that FERPA was cited as the reason the university wouldnot release the report.

Matthew Miller, the reporter of the March 26 article, declined tocomment.

Denbow said that a version of the report without students’ names– which is the version posted by the Lansing State Journal –was available to those students who brought the complaints and to the two groupsthat were being investigated.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said itis important to note that only educational institutions are governed by FERPAand that newspapers cannot violate the law because they are not subject to it.

Goldstein said that information published by a newspaper that was obtainedfrom an educational institution could be evidence of a FERPA violation, but itwould be the school that was in violation, not the newspaper.

Goldstein also said, however, that although FERPA defines what informationa school can release and to whom, it does not make schools responsible forensuring that a FERPA-compliant release of information is not disseminated toothers.

Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said the office does notcomment on any investigations it may be doing, and therefore could not confirmif it has received Bristow’s complaint.

Schools found to have violated FERPA can, in theory, lose their DOEfunding, but Bradshaw said it has never come to that point with any school andthat in virtually all cases schools were able to come into compliance.