University of Texas refuses student newspaper's records request for student government e-mails

TEXAS — The University of Texas at Austin denied studentjournalists’ public records requests for e-mails between studentgovernment officials, citing the Family Educational Rights and PrivacyAct.

Editors at the Daily Texan do not think the e-mails they requestedMarch 11 should be protected by FERPA just because they contain student names,but the university said it must protect any identifiable student information.FERPA, a federal law also known as the Buckley Amendment, counteractsstates’ public records laws by prohibiting schools that receive federalfunding from releasing students’ confidential educational records.

The Daily Texan requested the e-mails as part of an investigationinto a student government election scandal brought to light by one e-mail leakedto the newspaper. Editor-in-Chief Leah Finnegan said the requested documentswere not educational records, but government business that the public has aright to know about.

“We were arguing that because these students had e-mail addresses onthe public U-Texas server and they were conducting government business, weshould be privy to those e-mails,” Finnegan said.

However, the school denied the requests on March 26 and gave another denialwhen the newspaper asked again. The Daily Texan‘s requestfundamentally conflicted with FERPA by requesting certain named students’e-mails, said Annela Lopez, an administrative assistant in the Office of theVice President and Chief Financial Officer who deals with public records.

“You’re naming a student when you’re asking for theirrecord, so how do you release that record without identifying thatindividual?” Lopez said. “You don’t, and you can’t. Therequest was denied in full.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidstate universities’ student government records should be held to the samestandards of transparency as any other government officials responsible formaking policy and spending public money.

“It is a misuse of FERPA to say that e-mails between studentgovernment officials become confidential FERPA records simply because theycontain students’ names,” he said. “It is hardly a secret thata student holds a publicly elected office that he campaigned for.”

Lopez said each institution makes its own judgments about FERPA-protectedrecords, and those who disagree with a redaction or a request denial can file acomplaint with the federal compliance office.

The Daily Texan is still waiting to receive copies of e-mailsbetween administrators in response to a later request, but Finnegan said theydecided not to further pursue the student e-mails at this point in the schoolyear.