SUNY Oswego denies student newspaper's request for fraternity disciplinary records, citing FERPA

NEW YORK — The State University of New York at Oswego refused to release records about discipline against Greek houses to The Oswegonian last week, saying the records could have revealed private information. The school cited FERPA, a federal law designed to protect educational records.

But news editor Seamus Lyman, who made the request, said FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, doesn’t apply because he didn’t request individual students’ records. He asked for “copies of all records related to disciplinary violations of SUNY Oswego’s code of conduct by fraternities and sororities.”

Oswego’s public affairs office first cited FERPA, and then said it didn’t have records responsive to his request, for conduct violations organized by Greek organization.

Under FERPA, schools may not disclose a student’s education records — those that contain information directly related to a student and that are maintained by the institution. Schools risk losing federal funding if they do not comply, although no school has lost money since FERPA was signed into law in 1974.

After he was initially denied, Lyman said he showed the records office an example of how SUNY Plattsburgh releases information about Greek disciplinary action. Julie Blissert, Oswego’s records access officer, told Lyman the school did not have records in that format, and the records they did have were protected by FERPA.

“Plattsburgh created a statistical summary of disciplinary records, but the underlying records upon which it based the summary are not subject to the Freedom of Information law,” Blissert wrote in her response to Lyman.

Adam Goldstein, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, said FERPA would protect only records that would definitely identify an individual.

“There must be some form of the records, albeit redacted, that can be disclosed,” he said.

The office was concerned that redaction wouldn’t be enough to protect students’ privacy “given the small universe of students in Greek organizations at SUNY Oswego and in positions of responsibility in those organizations,” Blissert said in an email interview.

Editor-in-chief Ryan Deffenbaugh said The Oswegonian hasn’t decided whether to appeal the university’s response to SUNY system officials in Albany.

If not, “we’ll try to pursue it in other ways,” he said. “We’re just trying to get public information.”

The paper called for more transparency in the Greek system in an editorial published last week.

“Other universities seem to understand the value in transparency,” the editorial states. “SUNY Plattsburgh posts the disciplinary records of all fraternities and sororities on its website, easily accessible for anyone seeking the information.”

Lyman said he requested the records as part of The Oswegonian’s ongoing attempts to cover Greek life.

“We just thought the information might be there,” he said. “We were kind of sick and tired of people using FERPA the wrong way.”

The editorial claims Oswegonian reporters have been denied access to Greek Council meetings and general information on the basis of FERPA.

“The school willingly hides all Greek Life violations from the public eye,” it reads. “Even if the law doesn’t require the university to compile this data, common sense does.”

If Oswego did compile data for code violations by fraternities and sororities, that data would be public information, Blissert said.

“The college is open to considering the possibility in the future of compiling and sharing the kind of report that the Oswegonian reporter found at SUNY Plattsburgh,” she said. “We are consulting with our other sister SUNY campuses about their procedures as well.”

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.