SPJ approves resolution supporting legal efforts to end FERPA

The Society of Professional Journalists is formally supporting legal efforts to bring an end to FERPA, the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, following a resolution passed last week.

The resolution, which passed unanimously at the group’s annual convention, encourages the news media legal community to find a strong case to challenge the constitutionality of FERPA under the Supreme Court’s “Obamacare” ruling.

The 1974 law requires schools to keep “educational records” private or risk losing federal funding, something that has never happened in the 38 years the law has been in place. Colleges have cited FERPA and the threat of losing federal funding in order to conceal non-confidential records such as athletes on scholarships or recordings of student senate meetings.

Because FERPA forces states to change their policies under a threat from the federal government that they can not afford to refuse, the Supreme Court’s ruling in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius likely makes FERPA unconstitutional, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte argued in an Inside Higher Ed column earlier this month.

Carolyn Carlson, who serves on SPJ’s National Freedom of Information committee and heads its FERPA subcommittee, authored the resolution in response to LoMonte’s column and said she’d love to see the law overturned.

“It’s been a thorn in our side for over a decade,” Carlson said. “It’s been really abused and misused by college campuses across the nation, and it’s time for Congress to take another look at the issue of privacy on college campuses.”

SPJ members will be looking for a case to use to challenge the law’s legality, Carlson said.

“The key now is to find a case with all the good bones that we need to use as the test case,” she said. “The more people are aware of this as a possibility the more likely we are to come up with a good case.”