Copyright law protects U. of Missouri course syllabi from public disclosure, state court rules

MISSOURI — The University of Missouri System does not have to release course syllabi because they are protected by copyright laws, a state appellate court ruled last week — a decision the National Council on Teacher Quality plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled on Aug. 26 that the documents the NCTQ requested are not accessible under the state’s public records law because the documents are the intellectual property of the faculty, and are therefore protected from disclosure under the federal Copyright Act.

The NCTQ filed suit against the university system in Boone County Circuit Court in October 2012 after the UM System declined to release course syllabi that “students actually receive from their professors” for a college evaluation project the group is working on with U.S. News & World Report.

“In responding to the NCTQ’s request for course syllabi, we felt it was important to respect the rights of the faculty members who created the syllabi,” John Fougere, the university system’s spokesman, said in a statement. “We are glad that both courts to review the matter have concluded that we acted lawfully.”

Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ, an education research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said they were “dismayed and surprised” by the court’s ruling. She also said that the ruling, if upheld, could suggest that any governing body can deny access to published documents by claiming its employees own the rights to the materials.

“It’s an argument that I think is a strange one for universities to argue,” Walsh said. “I would imagine that universities don’t want it on record that the syllabi that professors prepare as employees of the university don’t really belong to [the university]. I don’t understand why universities would want to argue that case.”

Despite the court cases with the UM System, Walsh said NCTQ’s work withU.S. News & World Report has not been affected. She said the group usually finds other ways to access the materials needed when universities “refuse to cooperate.”

“We get them through students and faculty, so we’ll do that with the Missouri System as well, but it’s disappointing that at this point we have to do that,” Walsh said.

If the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to take the case, Walsh said NCTQ will file an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court can hear appeals from state courts if there is an issue of federal law that is conclusive; in this case, the argument would be that the federal Copyright Act is the basis of Supreme Court jurisdiction.

“I think that the arguments that we were putting forward are arguments that are in the best interest of public transparency, and anyone who believes that government has an obligation to be transparent would identify with our line of reasoning,” she said. “It’s just unfathomable that this argument prevailed.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.