FLORIDA — The University of Central Florida correctly withheld records that were protected by a federal education privacy law, a judge ruled this week in a public records lawsuit brought by student journalists at the university.
KnightNews.com, a student-run online news organization at the University of Central Florida, lost six out of seven counts in a civil court case regarding the production of public records. The news organization sued in February 2013, arguing the university improperly redacted records relating to fraternities’ disciplinary hearings, among other matters.
UCF justified many of the redactions under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects students’ educational records. In the order issued Tuesday, Circuit Court judge Patricia Doherty wrote that after reviewing the unredacted records, she determined the redactions were legal under the state’s public records act.
On several of the counts alleged by KnightNews.com, Doherty found that the news organization either did not prove it made a request under the public records act or did not have standing to bring the claims because the student who requested the records, Jacob Sadowsky, did not make it clear that he was making the request on behalf of the website. Sadowsky, a UCF student and KnightNews.com’s content manager, did not mention in his public records request for Homecoming contracts that he was working for KnightNews.com, the court found.
KnightNews.com won on one count, regarding a request for the contract with a speaker for the fraternity and sorority community. Sadowsky verbally requested a copy of the contract at the UCF Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life. His request was made to a student office assistant. Two staff members, including the office’s director, directed Sadowsky to obtain the contract at the News and Information Department.
Doherty ruled that UCF must provide the requested record to KnightNews.com within one week. She also wrote that public agencies cannot avoid “its responsibility to comply with a public records request by transferring records to another agency or office.”
“That’s a huge victory for us and our daily news gathering,” said Jake Rakoci, the website’s news editor.
Rakoci declined to elaborate on student editors’ reaction to the decision, and said he doesn’t know if the organization will appeal.
Chad Binette, a UCF spokesman, said in a statement that the university was pleased with the ruling.
“This ruling confirms that UCF follows public records laws regarding the hundreds of requests we receive each year,” Binette said. “We appreciate the judge’s careful and thorough consideration.”
Contact Spoont by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.