University of Central Florida: Fraternity discipline records protected by FERPA

FLORIDA — Responding to a public records lawsuit filed earlier this year, the University of Central Florida told a judge this week the school cannot provide student journalists unredacted records relating to Greek fraternities’ disciplinary hearings because the records are protected under a federal education privacy law.

In UCF’s answer Monday to the lawsuit, a student-run online news organization, filed in February, attorney Richard Mitchell said the school has given the news organization all of the records it is allowed to under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, even though reporters submitted “overly-broad” public records requests and did not follow university policies while doing so.

Knight News Inc.’s original complaint alleged UCF employees illegally redacted information from records the journalists requested throughout the previous year, both related and unrelated to the suspensions. It also said UCF administrators closed student organizations’ disciplinary hearings to media, which claims are public.

At the time of the requests, reporters were investigating how UCF’s student government association spent its money in addition to the fraternities’ suspensions. A recent article pointed out that the school has suspended four fraternities within the past year after closed hearings and questioned the university’s adjudication process.

UCF’s counterfilings argue some reporters did not identify themselves as media members while requesting records, which the school states should prevent those records from being included in the suit.

Florida’s sunshine law does not allow public bodies to compel records requestors to identify their affiliation or occupation.

Attorney Justin Hemlepp, who represents Knight News Inc., said in an interview that UCF’s decision not to tell reporters why administrators redacted information is a violation of the state’s sunshine law. He also said FERPA is not an applicable exemption in the case, noting a Georgia Supreme Court decision that said student journalists at the University of Georgia’s The Red and Black have a right to attend campus organizations’ disciplinary hearings and obtain the associated records.

“We think the university is applying an over-broad interpretation of what FERPA covers,” he said.

The school filed a motion to dismiss the case and an accompanying motion for summary judgment in March. Presiding circuit court judge Patricia Doherty denied the motions and issued a writ requesting that UCF show the court why the records weren’t fully public. She also ordered the school to file its answer to the lawsuit.

UCF’s attorneys filed another motion for summary judgment in July, prompting Knight News Inc. to file a motion for default judgment on the grounds that the school willingly disregarded a prior court order. Knight News Inc.’s motion was denied during a hearing last week, but Doherty ordered UCF to file its answer to the initial complaint by Monday. Knight News Inc. submitted its response to UCF’s answer Monday afternoon.

Grant Heston, UCF’s associate vice president for communications and public affairs, said the school will continue to defend the suit and maintains FERPA justified the redactions regardless of whether the records related to individual students or student organizations. Mitchell referred requests for comment on the lawsuit to Heston.

“UCF supports Florida’s important open records laws,” Heston said. “We provide thousands of records every year in response to requests. We also support protecting student records as required by federal law.”

Reporters said in a story Monday that the school threatened to impose “crippling” sanctions on the website if the lawsuit continued. Heston said via email that the school has countersued for attorneys’ fees and costs associated with the suit, which Hemlepp said would severely hurt the publication’s reporting efforts since it is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Hemlepp said he believes UCF’s reasons for denying to release the full records are “meritless” and Knight News Inc. welcomes the opportunity to prove it in court in January.

“UCF has repeatedly asserted over and over again that they need not admit or deny the allegations in the lawsuit, even going so far as to claim that our request was ‘a complete waste of time,’” he said. “We would like the redacted records produced unredacted, for the court to declare unconstitutional … that hearings of the student conduct board relating to organizational discipline are closed and to make sure UCF complies with public records law in the future.”

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