Illinois appeals court: Documents related to coaches' resignations private under state law

ILLINOIS — An Illinois appeals court partially overturned a trial court’s decision that said documents related to the resignation of a trio of college coaches could be kept private because of a federal education privacy law, according to an opinion released Thursday.

Amid allegations of misconduct by at least two of the coaches and following a settlement with a student that accused a coach of sexual impropriety, The State Journal-Register requested a number of documents from the University of Illinois-Springfield and sued the university when many documents were withheld.

In August 2012, a circuit judge made the university release a portion of the documents, but said the rest were protected by state law as well as FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA protects education records maintained by schools and universities. The Journal-Register appealed in September 2012.

In Thursday’s opinion, Justice Holder White wrote that a redacted “e-mail string containing a student complaint” as well as redacted witness statements by the coaches and an email referred to as “internal communication re: personnel matter” should not have been withheld. The documents are not protected by FERPA because they do not “directly relate to a student,” White wrote.

The appellate court found that there were privacy exemptions in the state’s public records act protecting the other documents and upheld the rest of the district court’s decision.

In an email statement, the university’s chancellor said she was pleased.

“The University of Illinois received a favorable ruling from the 4th District Appellate Court last week,” University of Illinois Springfield Chancellor Susan Koch wrote Tuesday. “We have said since the beginning, the University is committed to protecting the privacy and confidentiality rights of our students. It has been our consistent position throughout the legal proceeding that this information is of a personal nature and not subject to disclosure through provisions of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. We are pleased that the Court agrees with our position.”

Esther Seitz, a Springfield attorney who helped represent the Journal-Register, said she thought the decision “was kind of a mixed bag.”

Though her team was “disappointed that the personal privacy exemption [in FOIA] has been construed to apply so broadly to these records,” Seitz noted that they were “in a very difficult position to assess” how private the documents were, not having seen the documents themselves.

She was pleased, however, with the court’s narrow interpretation of exemptions to the state FOIA law that the university tried to use. The judges held that documents like witness statements cannot be withheld under FOIA exemptions covering “predecisional” and “deliberative process” materials, which apply to internal notes and memos that government officials are reviewing while formulating a policy.

Seitz said the “exemption had been overextended” and that she was happy with the precedent set on that exemption by the appeals court.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.