University of Oklahoma student journalist sues for access to parking tickets

OKLAHOMA — A University of Oklahoma student is suing for access to parking ticket records the school says are protected by a federal education privacy law.

Last fall, Joey Stipek, then The Oklahoma Daily‘s online editor, requested a database of parking tickets issued for the spring 2012 semester. He was given statistical information about the number of citations issued and dismissed each year, but the records he was given didn’t include identifiable information about the vehicle registration.

Another Oklahoma Daily reporter then asked for citations as well as names of individuals to whom the cars were registered. Rachel McCombs, the school’s open records director, denied their request in October, saying the records were protected under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Later, when they asked for non-student parking tickets, the university said it was technologically unable to comply.

Stipek, who will be interning at the Student Press Law Center in the fall, filed his lawsuit Friday after months of discussions with the university. Given the university’s repeated denials, a lawsuit is “the only way” to get the records, said attorney Nick Harrison, an Oklahoma Daily alumnus who is representing Stipek.

“Administrators try to sit and wait it out until students graduate or lose interest,” Harrison said. “They don’t think they have to follow the law.”

Harrison said Stipek requested the records because he was curious to see whether athletes or others at the university received preferential treatment when it came to parking tickets.

“He wanted to know which ones are dismissed and why?” Harrison said.

Harrison believes the case is very straightforward, and noted that courts in Maryland and North Carolina have said parking tickets are not protected under FERPA. In 2011, a judge ordered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to release parking tickets, writing that “FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view while enrolled.”

If the university believes they are protected under FERPA, Harrison said he questions why “they leave these on windshield wipers all over campus.”

A university spokeswoman said the school had no comment beyond a letter to the editor written by Parking and Transportation Services Director Douglas Myers that was published in The Oklahoma Daily in March.

“The university is bound to comply with current federal guidance,” Myers wrote. “Should that guidance change, the university will adopt policies that include the disclosure of student information alongside that already available for faculty, staff and others.”

Education records that “directly relate” to a student and that are “maintained” by the university are confidential under FERPA. At issue at the University of Oklahoma is whether parking citations are education records.

Journalists in Oklahoma and elsewhere have argued the citations are not education records because they are issued to a car and not an individual. Myers told the Daily in March that the university’s database was not able to differentiate between citations issued to students and non-students.

McCombs and University of Oklahoma President David Boren are named in the suit, filed in the district court of Cleveland County.

Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.