OKLAHOMA — The University of Oklahoma’s president announced Wednesday the institution will release parking ticket records, reversing course after OU administrators and lawyers maintained for more than a year that the citations were exempt from disclosure under the federal student privacy law.
The decision follows an announcement from the student newspaper to join a student editor’s public records lawsuit against the university.
“While there are differing interpretations of the federal law, I have personally and carefully considered the issue, and I believe that this action does not violate the intent of the federal privacy law,” David Boren, the university’s president, said in a statement. “I have no reason to believe that there has been any impropriety in the parking ticket program, but I believe that the public has a right to know how it has been implemented.”
Nicholas Harrison, the attorney representing The Oklahoma Daily editor, said he expects the students to agree to resolve and dismiss their case, which won’t set precedent for future records requests. Harrison said he will contact university officials to make sure they release the parking ticket documents special projects editor Joey Stipek requested and to agree on reimbursement for Stipek’s court costs and attorney fees.
In an editorial published in Wednesday’s paper, The Oklahoma Daily editorial board said it would join the lawsuit after learning last week they were able to sue the university, which funds the paper. Director of Student Media Nick Jungman said about two-thirds of the paper’s budget comes from advertising revenue, about $185,000 comes from student fees and $35,000 comes from the president’s office each year.
“We hope this lawsuit will serve as a precedent for colleges and universities where administrators are misinterpreting an important federal law which, in turn, keeps information from the public,” according to the editorial, referring to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal student privacy law.
Blayklee Buchanan, The Oklahoma Daily’s editor-in-chief, said the editorial board decided to join the lawsuit despite concerns that readers wouldn’t understand why they were pursuing the case.
“We’re hoping that the lawsuit, if anything, shows the importance of open records,” she said.
Stipek filed the lawsuit in May 2013 against Boren and Open Records Office Director Rachel McCombs when officials declined to provide documents indicating who received parking tickets during the spring 2012 semester, arguing FERPA exempted the records from public disclosure. Stipek requested the records to determine whether OU athletes got preferential treatment for parking tickets. The university said it was technologically unable to comply when the newspaper staff asked for non-student parking tickets.
In August 2013, a Cleveland County District Court judge ruled that Stipek should have filed the suit against the University of Oklahoma instead of naming Boren and McCombs and dismissed the case. Stipek’s attorney, Nicholas Harrison, re-filed the suit the next month in the Cleveland County District Court, naming the university as the defendant.
In October 2013, the university filed a motion to have the case heard in federal court because it said FERPA application is a federal matter and doesn’t belong in a state court. Although Harrison argued the university’s compliance with the state’s open records act was the issue, the case was moved to United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.
The district court judge declined the university’s motion to dismiss the case in May 2014.
Stipek said the newspaper’s decision to join the case was a stand for transparency, showing the campus that open records are important. He said the editorial board’s decision “takes some pressure off my shoulders” with the lawsuit.
A similar incident occurred in 2011 in North Carolina, where a state court judge ruled that parking tickets issued to University of North Carolina athletes are not education records protected by FERPA.
Although a settlement would not set precedent for future records requests, Harrison said the university might be more careful about denying requests in the future, calling the possible settlement an “informal precedent.”“They understand and they realize that there could possibly be concrete legal action if their position isn’t sound,” Harrison said.
SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.