Iowa Supreme Court: FERPA shields records in student athlete sexual assault case

IOWA — Federalstudent privacy law bars the release of records related to an alleged sexualassault by university football players, even in redacted form, the Iowa SupremeCourt ruled Friday.

The Iowa high court’s 4-3 decision blocks access toUniversity of Iowa records concerning the alleged 2007 sexual assault. A femalestudent athlete alleged that two Hawkeye football players sexually assaultedher in her dorm in the middle of the night. The two players were eventually removedfrom the team and charged. One pled guilty to “assault with intent to inflictserious injury,” and the other was convicted of misdemeanor assault.

The Iowa City Press-Citizenfiled a request under the state’s public records law for reports of attemptedor actual sexual assaults during that time period and correspondence betweenuniversity officials about those incidents. The university initially releasedonly 18 pages of documents, but withheld about nearly 3,000 more citing privacyconcerns.

The newspaper sued and a state court judge in 2008 and 2009ordered the release of additional records, some with information about studentsredacted. The university appealed, arguing that releasing even the redactedrecords would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed. The court’sdecision relies on 2009 regulations from the U.S. Department of Education thatallow schools and colleges to withhold records containing information aboutstudents, even with all identifying information removed, if the school thinksthe person requesting the information knows the identity of the students.

The newspaper argued those regulations should not be appliedin this case because they went into effect after the lawsuit was filed, but thecourt disagreed. It found the Press-Citizen’s arguments were largely policydisagreements with the FERPA regulations.

“This feature of FERPA,however, derives from earlier determinations by Congress and the DOE thatpreservation of student confidentiality should be an overarching goal of thestatute,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote. “It is not our role to reexaminethose decisions.”

One point of contention amongthe justices was FERPA’s exception for records released by court order. Themajority felt that relying on that provision would gut the law.

“This would lead to a highlyincongruous situation where FERPA would only have effect until the partyrequesting records chose to go to court, at which point FERPA would cease to haveany effect at all,” according to Mansfield’s opinion.

In dissent, Justice Brent Appelargued that FERPA only prohibits schools themselves from having a “policy orpractice” of releasing confidential education records.

“In my view, compliance witha judicial order pursuant to a generally applicable state public recordsstatute does not amount to a policy or practice” on the part of the college, Appel wrote.

The high court also declinedto address an argument raised by other media groups that releasing recordsbased on the identity of the requester is unconstitutional. Mansfield wrotethat the issue had not been raised by the Press-Citizenor in the lower court.

Media organizations,including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed afriend-of-the-court brief in support of the Press-Citizen,taking issue with the idea that a school can withhold records because itbelieves the party requesting the documents may know the identities of thestudents involved. The groups wrote that this practice could “discriminateagainst those granted public information and outright chill some persons fromexercising their rights to inspect public records.”

“The U.S. Supreme Courtconsistently has held that ‘withholding information under [the federal Freedomof Information Act] cannot be predicated on the identity of the requester,’”the media coalition wrote in March 2010. “Although the Press-Citizen voluntarily disclosedits identity in requesting the records at issue, it did not need to do so andshould not be punished for its own openness.”

Tricia Brown, Press-Citizen senior editor, saidthe newspaper staff was “a bit disappointed” in the outcome but that there isan underlying victory.

“Overall, it was a victoryfor us,” Brown said. “Just a very small amount [of the requested records] arebeing kept private by this ruling. The number we did receive is what we need tofocus on.”

Brown said her staff hasdiscussed appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but no decision has been madeand the possibility has not been explored with the newspaper’s attorney. In order for the Supreme Court to take the case, thenewspaper would have to show the dispute is fundamentally about federal – ratherthan state – law.

The Press-Citizen’s attorney, Paul Burns, said he was still reviewingthe opinion and was not prepared to provide comment on the specifics of theruling.

Tom Moore, spokesman for theUniversity of Iowa, said the university is happy with the court’s decision.

“The university is pleasedthat the court supported our stance regarding the importance of protecting theprivacy of our students,” he said.

In a written statement, FrankLoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, called on Congressto reform FERPA.

“Extremists in the U.S.Department of Education have hijacked a well-intentioned law about theconfidentiality of academic records and, by their bizarre interpretations,transformed it into the Federal Education Rapists’ Protection Act,” he said. “TheIowa Supreme Court’s outlandish ruling is a wake-up call that Congress cannotignore.”

By Brian Schraum and Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writers