The State Journal-Register v. University of Illinois-Springfield

994 N.E.2d 705 (Ill App. Ct. 2013)

In September 2009, the University of Illinois paid $200,000 to settle a claim made by one or more women who said they were sexually assaulted by a coach at the school. Before the settlement, two coaches resigned. Reporter Bruce Rushton of The State Journal-Register requested records regarding the coach’s resignations as well as the settlement agreement. The university refused, citing FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. More than a year later, the university eventually provided a heavily redacted form of the settlement agreement. The newspaper sued, seeking the unredacted agreement as well as the remaining records, arguing that an investigation into wrongdoing by a coach is not an educational record protected by FERPA. The Circuit Court of Sangamon County ruled in favor of the university, a decision the newspaper then appealed to a state appellate court.

The SPLC filed an amicus brief in support of the newspaper and cited the need to curtail the misuse of FERPA when denying access to public records. FERPA was designed to protect students from being unable to access their own records, while law enforcement and other agencies were routinely allowed to access their academic records without students’ consent, the brief argues. In practice, universities broadly define educational records and use FERPA as a blanket excuse to avoid disclosing records. The brief argues that in the investigation, records relating to a coach’s misconduct are not education records merely because they may include the name of a student.

The Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District found that the documents were not exempt from disclosure under FERPA, although portions of the records were exempt from disclosure on other privacy grounds. The court ordered the disclosure of portions of the coaches’ witness statements.