Florida appellate judge: Florida university allowed to withhold hazing records under FERPA

FLORIDA — A state appellate judge said in an opinion released today that the University of Central Florida properly withheld information from a student-run news site that would have identified students accused of hazing.

Judge Kerry I. Evander for Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling and wrote that UCF was correct when it redacted the records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal education privacy law that protects students’ educational records. Judges C. Alan Lawson and James A. Edwards affirmed his decision.

KnightNews.com, a student-run news organization at UCF, filed a lawsuit against the university in 2013, arguing administrators improperly redacted public records and shut reporters out of disciplinary hearings related to hazing allegations against a university fraternity.

In 2014, a circuit court determined the redactions were legal under Florida’s public records law and ruled in favor of the university. KnightNews.com lost 16 of the 17 counts in the case, with four of those counts filed under Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Act.

KnightNews.com sought to require the university to prepare and produce disciplinary hearing minutes and open future student organization disciplinary hearings to the public. The news outlet also wanted the court to rule that UCF’s hearing regulations are unconstitutional since they were closed to the public, and that any actions taken by the university in the 2012 fraternity disciplinary hearings are null and void.

In his ruling affirming the trial court’s decision, Evander cited a precedent set in United States v. Miami University — a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case that concluded that most student disciplinary records are protected by FERPA because they are “education records.”

Evander writes that while the Miami University case does allow the release of certain disciplinary records and information related to alleged violent crime or non-forcible sex offenses, the non-disclosed records at UCF did not fall within the parameters.

“Although [KnightNews.com] has set forth valid public policy arguments as to why the type of records and information requested in this case should be subject to public disclosure, we believe that those arguments are more properly addressed to the appropriate legislative bodies,” Evander wrote.

Mark Caramanica, who filed an amicus brief in March 2015 on behalf of KnightNews.com, said it was disappointing to see the court apply a broad interpretation of FERPA, since the student journalists requested a variety of different records. Instead, he said FERPA should just apply to core student records, such as test scores and transcripts.

“I think the opinion doesn’t really reflect the density of the case and what was at issue,” he said.

Caramanica, along with the Student Press Law Center and other press-rights groups, filed the amicus brief to challenge UCF’s claim that student disciplinary records against Greek houses are protected by FERPA.

“There is no indication that the U.S. Department of Education has brought enforcement action against any of the institutions that disclosed fraternity disciplinary records,” the brief said. “Court after court has recognized that FERPA is to be applied in a common-sense manner that permits disclosure even of identifiable records where no legitimate expectation of privacy exists.”

The brief cited investigative reporting by news outlets like Bloomberg News and the Baltimore Sun about fraternity hazing that used the same type of records that UCF refused to release.

“If FERPA really said what the University of Central Florida claims, it would be unconstitutional,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte in a statement on the brief. “The courts must interpret FERPA as its congressional sponsors intended – as a penalty for a habitual practice of mishandling students’ records, not for granting one request.”

In September 2015, UCF petitioned the appeals court to order KnightNews.com to pay for some of the university’s legal expenses. If a court finds that a case was filed in bad taste or was frivolous, Florida law does allow courts to require the plaintiff to pay a “reasonable attorney’s fee.”

UCF’s General Counsel did not immediately return the SPLC’s request for comment.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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