Judge: FERPA not justification for prior restraint on Wyo. newspapers

WYOMING — A Wyoming judge ruled Tuesday to dissolve a temporary restrainingorder against the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and the Cheyenne Heraldthat prevented the newspapers from publishing a leaked report concerning thepresident at Laramie County Community College.

On April 12, the college initially denied the Tribune Eagle accessto the report based on a claim that disclosure would violate the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. On May 21, the TribuneEagle, through an anonymous source, received a copy of the report, whichcontains information regarding President Darrel Hammon’s conduct whilechaperoning a 2008 student trip to Costa Rica.

A Tribune Eagle reporter called the college for an interview themorning of May 21, and by that afternoon the paper had received a restrainingorder issued by Judge Peter Arnold, said Tribune Eagle executive editorReed Eckhardt. The order blocked the newspapers from publishing any informationregarding the report for at least 10 days.

The Cheyenne Herald posted portions of the report on its websitewithout contacting the college first. However, it then removed the report afterArnold issued the injunction, said Dave Featherly, publisher and editor of theHerald.

The lawyers representing the college maintained that since the report alsocontains student names, releasing any information pertaining to the report wouldviolate provisions of FERPA and put the school in danger of losing all U.S.Department of Education funding, according to the court order.

In his Tuesday ruling, the judge said that there was no substantialevidence to show that publication of the material would be a violation of FERPAjeopardizing the college’s federal funding. Both parties agreed to submittheir respective documents to the judge over the weekend for his review in placeof having a hearing.

“My client is gratified with the careful consideration of the courtand its accurate reflection of the law,” Bruce Moats, attorney for the

Tribune Eagle, said. “The larger picture here is the whole idea ofallowing the college to go through the court to try to reach into the composingroom and direct what is going to be published. If the newspaper does somethingwrong, then that can be addressed after the publication. That’s theappropriate time, not before.”

In fact, Moats said court-ordered injunctions are practically unheard of inthe United States. The Wyoming Press Association and the Society of ProfessionalJournalists both came out with statements condemning Arnold’s initialprior restraint order.

“The judge made the right call and the only call he could make underthe First Amendment. Nothing less than an imminent danger to the country’snational security justifies restraining a newspaper from publishing,” saidFrank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Itsdisturbing that a college would hide behind a bogus claim of confidentiality toconceal unflattering information. FERPA is about having an effectiveconfidentiality policy — the department [of education] is not going to shutdown an entire college for a single disclosure.”

Eckhardt said the contents of the report focus on the president’sactions, not the students’, and that the paper has a story prepared to runin Wednesday’s paper about the report with the student names edited out.

“From my perspective, it’s not anything that’s shockingor that would cause him [the president] to lose his position,” Eckhardtsaid. “It’s somewhat frustrating for me that the college would gothrough this much effort to withhold information that clearly in my mind belongsto the public domain. That they would go to these kinds of measures to withholdthis report is particularly concerning.”

The lawyer for Laramie County Community College hadn’t returned callsas of press time.