Florida appeals court: College must release name of student who complained about professor

FLORIDA — Anemail from a student to a department chair complaining about a professor is nota confidential education record, a Florida appeals court ruled Thursday.

Darnell Rhea, a former adjunct professor of mathematics atSanta Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., brought the public records lawsuit. Rhearequested an email a student wrote to one of his supervisors complaining aboutRhea’s conduct. When Rhea received the email, the name of the student wasredacted.

Rhea said he wanted to know the name of the student so hecould defend himself against the email’s allegations.

The college claimed releasing the student’s name wouldviolate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal studentprivacy law, because the email was an “education record.” Last year, a trialcourt judge agreed.

Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, however, ruledthat the email must be released with the name because it is not an educationrecord. The judges cited FERPA’s definition of an education record, whichstates the record must be “directly related to a student.”

The email Rhea requested was not, the judges determined.

“The fundamental character of the e-mail relates directly tothe instructor; the fact that it was authored by a student does not convert itinto an ‘education record,’” Judge Stephanie Ray wrote for a unanimousthree-judge panel.

The judges ruled the email must be released because of itsstatus as a public record.

“Because the e-mail at issue is a communication that wassent to, and received by the College in connection with the transaction of itsofficial business, it is a public record subject to disclosure in the absenceof a statutory exemption,” Ray wrote in the ruling.

Rhea represented himself prose but lost the case at the trial court level.

He said he has filed many lawsuits and thought he might havea chance at winning this one because of the length of time that passed since hefiled his initial brief.

“The court of appeal is a place where they don’t give a flipabout who the person is,” Rhea said. “They want to know what the issue is andget in there and make the right decision.”

He said it could be a month or two before he learns the nameof the student who wrote the email.

“Some people go fishing, some people climb mountains, somepeople go out and mow the grass…. My hobby is filing lawsuits againstgovernment agencies,” Rhea said.

Patti Locascio, Santa Fe College’s general counsel, said thecollege believes the email is clearly a student record and is “adamant about protectingstudents’ right to privacy.”

The college has until Aug. 2 to ask the appeals court for arehearing, and until Aug. 20 to ask the Florida Supreme Court to hear the case.

“We have not made a final decision but we are lookingseriously at filing a motion for rehearing and/or filing a petition of reviewwith the Florida Supreme Court,” Locascio said.

If not overturned, the decision becomes binding precedent inthe First District, which covers much of North Florida and the panhandle.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer