Appeals court tosses Chicago Tribune’s FERPA lawsuit over admissions records

ILLINOIS — Afederal appeals court on Thursday threw out the Chicago Tribune’s publicrecords lawsuit against the University of Illinois, finding that the suit mustbe brought in state court.

The lawsuit sought access to the names and addresses of theparents of admission applicants on the university’s so-called “clout list.” Thenewspaper published a series of stories in 2009 claiming UI had a preferentialadmissions policy in which friends of trustees and state lawmakers were admitteddespite subpar academic qualifications. The scandal led to the resignation ofthe university president and several members of its board of trustees.

The university argues the requested records are protected bya federal student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,and do not have to be disclosed under the state’s public records act.

The Tribune suedin federal court, and a judge in March 2011 found FERPA does not bar the releaseof otherwise public documents. The ruling Thursday from the 7th U.S. CircuitCourt of Appeals vacates that decision and dismisses the case on proceduralgrounds.

“Because the Tribune’s claim to the information arises underIllinois law, the state court is the right forum to determine the validity ofwhatever defenses the University presents to the Tribune’s request,” JudgeFrank Easterbrook wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

The panel did not express an opinion on whether the recordsshould be disclosed, finding that question must be answered by a state courtrather than a federal one.

Sam Skinner, attorney for the University of Illinois, saidhe considers the ruling a victory, even though the court did not rule on themerits of the lawsuit. Both sides had urged the Seventh Circuit to keep thecase in federal court.

“It would have been nice to have had them resolve theissue,” he said. “We believe if they had resolved the issue that they wouldhave come down for protection of student records.”

James Klenk, the newspaper’s attorney, said the Tribune will “vigorously pursue” the case in state court.

“It’s ridiculous to say that it’s an educational record when [former] Gov. Blagojevich calls the chancellor of the university and says ‘admit this person.'” Klen said. “That’s not an educational record under any reading of FERPA.”

A state case is pending in Sangamon County Circuit Court,but has been largely dormant while the federal lawsuit moved forward. Klenk said he has not yet decided on his next move.

“It’ll be the quickest one I can think of,” he said.

UI vowed to continue fighting to withhold the admissions records.

“We’re not giving these records up,” he said. “We thinkthey’re protected under FERPA. We’re not going to expose the students, theparents and the school to any kind of action because we violated federal law.”

A group of 23 media organizations, including the StudentPress Law Center, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Seventh Circuitto take a narrow view of FERPA.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said hedoesn’t disagree with the court’s rationale but would have preferred to see theearlier decision upheld.

“The district judge did an excellent job of confining FERPAto its rightful place and it would have been nice to get that reasoningaffirmed,” LoMonte said.

By Brian Schraum, SPLC staff writer