PRESS RELEASE: SPLC hails progress toward reforming FERPA excesses

Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director. (703)807-1904 or

Following the Columbus Dispatch‘s revelation that collegeathletic departments routinely invoke federal “education privacy”laws to refuse to release airplane passenger manifests, complementary ticketlists and other non-educational documents, the Student Press Law Center isjoining leading Ohio elected officials in calling for reforms.

In letters sent Wednesday, the SPLC offered to work with U.S. Sen. SherrodBrown, D-Ohio, and Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, each of whom told theDispatch that they will seek to rein in excesses in the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the BuckleyAmendment.

Congress enacted FERPA in 1974 to penalize schools that fail to adopt andenforce policies to safeguard the confidentiality of student education records. As the Dispatch documented in a series of stories that began running onMay 31, colleges routinely refuse to honor open-records requests for recordsthat cannot realistically be considered “educational,” including thenames of those receiving free football tickets from student athletes. Worse, asthe Dispatch reported June 7, FERPA has been invoked to block parentsfrom receiving potentially life-saving information about their ownchildren’s medical conditions. The primary author of FERPA, retired U.S.Sen. James L. Buckley of New York, told the Dispatch that FERPA “needs to be revamped” because colleges are relying on the law toconceal records that Congress never intended to classify as confidential.

“There is a reason that Ohio and all 49 other states have enactedbroad statutes that declare all government records, including those kept byschools, open for public inspection with limited exceptions: because there is acompelling public interest in honest and efficient government, which can beserved only if the public can independently verify how agencies areperforming,” attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center, said in a June 10 letter to Senator Brown and Attorney GeneralCordray.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofitwhose mission is to advocate for free-press rights for high school and collegejournalists nationwide. The Center provides legal information and referralassistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.

LoMonte said the SPLC regularly hears from journalists denied access todocuments with no legitimately private student information, including auditreports of college spending, on the grounds that any document naming orreferring to a student is a confidential FERPA document. One public universityin Wisconsin recently responded to a student newspaper’s open-recordsrequest for records of a university committee meeting by producing an almostcompletely erased tape-recording, on the grounds that the voices of studentsspeaking at a public meeting are confidential FERPA information.

“While some FERPA-based denials are good-faith misinterpretations ofthe law, too often colleges abuse FERPA to withhold information they considerembarrassing. Unfortunately, Congress failed to provide penalties for thebad-faith misuse of FERPA to conceal information in which there is no legitimateprivacy interest,” LoMonte said. “Now that Senator Buckley has comeforward and declared that FERPA is being abused beyond what Congress intended,it’s time for Congress to act. Congress should clarify that the lawapplies only to students’ academic records, and should impose realpenalties for bad-faith reliance on FERPA to withhold newsworthy,non-confidential information.”

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