University of Oklahoma parking tickets lawsuit moved to federal court

OKLAHOMA — A journalist at the University of Oklahoma’s student newspaper who sued his school seeking access to parking ticket records says he will challenge the school’s attempt to move the case to federal court.

Joey Stipek, a special projects reporter at The Oklahoma Daily, filed a lawsuit in May against University of Oklahoma President David Boren and open records office director Rachel McCombs after officials repeatedly refused to provide him with information about parking tickets issued during the spring 2012 semester, saying the records were protected by FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

That case was dismissed in August after a judge determined Stipek should have filed the suit against the University of Oklahoma rather than naming Boren and McCombs individually. Nicholas Harrison, Stipek’s attorney, re-filed the suit on Stipek’s behalf in September.

Now, the University of Oklahoma has filed a motion to have the case heard by federal, not state, courts, saying that it involves a question of how FERPA is applied, despite Harrison’s assertion that the issue at hand is the university’s compliance with the state’s Open Records Act. After the case was removed to federal courts, the school also filed a motion to dismiss the case entirely.

“Most state entities really don’t like to be in federal court. It’s sort of a rarity for state institutions to try to move these things to federal court,” Harrison said. “A concern out there is they’re trying to deprive my client of counsel.”

Harrison, a presidential business fellow for the U.S. Department of Personnel Management’s Small Business Administration, questioned the school’s motive in removing the case from state court. U.S. law states federal employees would be unable to represent private clients in a federal court case that involves a federal matter of “substantial” interest.

Harrison must also be admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma and register to enter electronic case filings by Nov. 15 or he will be unable to represent Stipek.

Michael Nash, a spokesman for the University of Oklahoma, said the school does not comment on pending litigation.

Stipek and Harrison said they respected but disagreed with the lower court’s decision to dismiss the original lawsuit, and they will attempt to get the proceedings remanded to Cleveland County.

Most lawsuits involving public records disputes and FERPA have been tried in state courts. In 2012, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s decision in a public records case involving FERPA and the University of Illinois. In that case, brought by The Chicago Tribune, the appeals court said the lawsuit needed to be resolved in state courts “because the Tribune’s claim to the information arises under Illinois law.”

It will be “several months” before a judge makes any decisions in the federal case, but Harrison said that won’t stop his client from trying to get the information he wants.

“Ultimately, we want the parking citations released,” Harrison said. “Whether it comes out in federal court or state court, that’s not a big deal. I want the University of Oklahoma to comply with the law and release the parking tickets.”

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.