Wisc. student newspaper awarded settlement in public records lawsuit

WISCONSIN — The UWM Post at the University of Wisconsin,Milwaukee, was awarded a settlement last week in its public records lawsuitagainst the university.

This settlement comes after the student newspaper’s formerEditor-in-Chief Jonathan Anderson made an open records request for theagendas, minutes and recordings of Union Policy Board meetings at theuniversity. The board, composed of students, faculty members and administrators,allocates office space to student organizations, among its other duties,Anderson said.

Though his request was not entirely denied, the records he received wereredacted of information, like student names, Anderson said. The university citedthe Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as their reason, eventhough the meetings had been open to the public.

In the settlement, the university agreed to release the original,unredacted versions of the records and the Post was awarded more than$11,000 to cover its legal fees, according to its Web site.

Anderson and the Post’s attorney, Robert Dreps of Godfrey

& Kahn S.C. of Madison, Wisc., called this a big victory for studentnewspapers, since student journalists are those who most frequently run intoFERPA issues when requesting information.

“It’s hard to say whether the problem lies with the schoolsand their interpretation of FERPA or with the U.S. Department of Education andits interpretation of FERPA,” Dreps said.This was only one of fiveor six records issues Anderson brought to attorney Robert Dreps, who representedhim, which cited FERPA as grounds for denial, Dreps said. This was the case theythought was most likely to succeed in a lawsuit and garner theuniversity’s attention.

“This wasn’t the first instance where the university has deniedin whole or in part a record request, but it seemed to us that it was the mostblatant,” Anderson said. “It was the clearest case of over-complyingwith FERPA.”

Since the Department of Education’s regulations are “extremelybroad,” it can be difficult for schools to know how to interpret them,Dreps said.

Vice Chancellor for University Relations Tom Luljak said it was because ofthis lack of clarity in the law that the school decided to protect studentprivacy.

“However,” Luljak said, “we respect the advice of thestate Department of Justice and are satisfied that the case has been settled. Inthe future we will continue to evaluate each records request on its own meritsas we are required to do under the law.”