SPLC Calls for FERPA Reform After ‘Outlandish’ Court Ruling Shielding Iowa Rape Records

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The Student Press Law Center (“SPLC”), a nonprofitlegal-assistance organization that supports student journalists nationwide,released the following statement Friday in response to the Iowa Supreme Court’sJuly 13 ruling in Press-Citizen Companyv. University of Iowa.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center, said:

“The idea that a criminal has a legitimate privacy interestin records about how his crimes were investigated should offend thesensibilities of all Americans. Extremists in the U.S. Department of Educationhave hijacked a well-intentioned law about the confidentiality of academicrecords and, by their bizarre interpretations, transformed it into the Federal EducationRapists’ Protection Act.”

“It is a painful irony that, just one day after the worldlearned of the extent of Penn State’s subterfuge to conceal the activities of asexual predator on campus, a court grants colleges a stamp of judiciallegitimacy to continue deceiving the public about how they respond to seriouscrimes. The Iowa Supreme Court’s outlandish ruling is a wake-up call thatCongress cannot ignore. FERPA has been a broken statute for a long time, andnow the disastrous consequences of congressional inaction have been broughthome. The Department of Education must be called to account for puttingfictitious privacy interests ahead of the safety of college campuses.”

“To be clear, the Press-Citizenwas not seeking to compromise any legitimate privacy interest in educationrecords. The Press-Citizen wasseeking records necessary to inform the public about whether the University ofIowa responded with proper urgency to a report of a serious crime. That therecords involved crimes committed by known students should not matter, and inthe view of most courts it does not matter, since there is no legitimateprivacy interest in being a criminal. Public universities cannot be givenlicense to hide behind bogus ‘student privacy’ claims to conceal whether theydiligently investigate crimes or whether they afford preferential treatment tostudent-athletes.”

“When the Department of Education reinterpreted FERPA to allowschools and colleges to ‘read the minds’ of requesters and to withhold informationif they believe the requester has a specific student in mind, the SPLC warnedthat it would lead to nonsensical results. Today’s decision exemplifies theDOE’s shortsightedness in enacting an unreasonable expansion of FERPA. Ineffect, the DOE has said that public records can become confidential becausetheir contents are so newsworthy that everyone already knows who they areabout. That is an Alice-in-Wonderland view of privacy that results in affordingenhanced privacy rights to people whose identities, as in this case, arealready widespread public knowledge. It is nonsense to say that informationbecomes ‘more confidential’ because it is the subject of a widely publicizedcontroversy of enormous public concern. Congress must act to rein in FERPAbefore more such abuses proliferate.”

The Student Press Law Center advocates for the rights ofjournalists to obtain public information from colleges and schools. The SPLC filed comments in theDOE rulemaking concerning the 2009 regulation at issue in the Press-Citizen case. More informationabout the Center’s work in support of government transparency can be found atwww.splc.org.