ARLINGTON, Va. — Editors at the University ofWisconsin-Milwaukee’s UWM Post filed suit today challenging theircollege’s claim that any document that identifies a student – eventhe recording of a student’s voice speaking at a public committee meeting- is a confidential “educational record” that cannot bereleased under Wisconsin’s public-records law.
The Post and its former editor-in-chief, JonathanAnderson, filed suit today in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, seeking adeclaration that the records sought by the Post are covered by theWisconsin Open Records Law. The complaint was filed by attorneys Robert J. Drepsand Rebecca Kathryn Mason of the law firm of Godfrey & Kahn, S.C., a leadingmedia-law firm, representing the students as part of theStudent Press Law Center’s Attorney ReferralNetwork.
Post editors were refused access to agendas,minutes and audio recordings of meetings of the Union Policy Board, which makespolicy for the UWM Student Union, a campus cultural and recreational center.Although the board meetings were open for members of the public to attend, UWMPublic Records Custodian Amy Watson denied the Post‘s requestalmost entirely, claiming that the names of students – and even the soundof their voices – are protected by the federal Family Educational Rightsand Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment. Watson agreed torelease only heavily edited records – including an audio recording onwhich all but one voice was erased.
The Post and its editors have been repeatedlydenied access to newsworthy public records under claims of FERPA privacy. Amongthe information that student journalists requested, but were refused, included:
- The names of college employees who sit on studentdisciplinary hearing panels.
- Travel records of student government officers who tooktrips at taxpayer expense throughUWM
Anderson was presented with the 2009″College Press Freedom Award” on Oct. 31 by the AssociatedCollegiate Press and the Student Press Law Center for his persistence inpressing for greater access to public records from UWM and its studentgovernment association.
“FERPA is a confusing law that is badly in need ofclarification, but UWM’s ultra-literal interpretation is the most extremeand nonsensical that we have ever seen,” SPLC Executive Director Frank D.LoMonte said. “All laws are supposed to be applied in a common-sensemanner, but UWM has exhibited ‘zero tolerance for common sense’ whenapplying FERPA.”
“Congress intended FERPA to protect trulyconfidential information, such as grades, where there is no legitimate publicinterest in disclosure. What people say at a government meeting is undeniably anewsworthy matter of public interest. Just because the college puts publicinformation into a document or onto a tape, the information does not magicallybecome confidential,” LoMonte said.
The complaint points out that the UPB is a public bodysubject to the state’s open-records and open-meetings laws, so that itsrecords are not the individual education records of any particular student. Thecomplaint also points out that other public bodies with student members,including the Wisconsin Board of Regents, do not redact or withhold records ofmeetings in which students participate.
“The Post disagrees with UWM’s interpretation of FERPA.We do not think Union Policy Board documents and recordings should be consideredan educational record. It’s my hope that this action will ultimately lead to amuch needed clarification of this federal student privacy law,” said KevinLessmiller, the current Editor-in-Chief of the UWM Post.
Anderson, who is now the Post’s special-projectseditor, said, “The university’s assertion that FERPA was intended torestrict disclosure of the records of the Union Policy Board – a powerfulgoverning body that has significant oversight over the allocation of stateresources and makes important policy decisions that greatly affect student lifeon the UWM campus – cannot be countenanced.”
The complaint names as defendants the Union Policy Boardand Watson as the university’s public-records custodian. The complaintseeks an order compelling the disclosure of all records requested by Andersonand the Post, as well as an award of attorney fees.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has beendevoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights andresponsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the studentnews media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Centerprovides free information and educational materials for student journalists andtheir teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.
CONTACT:Frank D. LoMonte, Esq.Executive DirectorStudent Press Law Center(703) firstname.lastname@example.org