Utah newspaper might appeal decision to allow colleges to shield names of students accused of sexual assault

UTAH — A Utah newspaper is considering legal action after a state committee denied a reporter access to the names of college students who were found to be responsible for violent or sexual misconduct by their schools.

In a 3-2 decision, the Utah State Records Committee voted last week that eight colleges in the state did not have to release the names of students found responsible for violent or sexual violations.

Annie Knox, the higher education reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune who filed the records request, said the newspaper is considering appealing the decision to a district court. The paper has 30 days from the committee’s vote to decide.

At the committee meeting last week, school representatives argued that releasing the names would create a chilling effect for the reporting of sexual assault and would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy under the state’s public records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act.

According to the law, records are considered private if they contain “data on individuals the disclosure of which constitutes a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Testifying in front of the committee, Knox said schools are allowed to release student records related to violent or sexual offenses under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal student privacy law. She said FERPA allows schools to release an accused student’s name, the disciplinary action taken and the corresponding year. Knox also argued at the meeting that the state’s public record law does not specifically prevent the release of the information.

“We believe that this information is in the interest of the public, because it will show Utahns how public entities handle reports of violence on their property and against their students,” Knox said at the hearing.

In particular, Knox said the information would allow her to report on when and how often reports of violence are referred to the police, whether school policies are evenly applied and how often repeat offenders are sanctioned by the schools.

In September, Knox requested student disciplinary records related to violent and sexual misconduct cases from eight higher education institutions in Utah — the University of Utah, Dixie State University, Southern Utah University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Snow College, Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College.

The schools released the disciplinary actions along with the corresponding years, Knox said at the committee meeting, but did not identify the names of the students they found responsible in those cases.

Bill Evans, assistant attorney general in the Utah state attorney general’s office, represented the eight schools at the committee meeting. He argued FERPA does not require the institution to release information, but instead states that schools are not prohibited from releasing that information, which he said implies that schools should act with discretion.

While Evans said the institutions want the public to be aware of their efforts in handling sexual assault cases, releasing the names of accused students serves as a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy for the victim and the accused and would violate the state’s public record law.

Schools do not conduct a criminal due process, Evans said at the meeting, so linking a student’s name to these crimes could be deeply damaging to an accused student’s due process.

Joel Campbell, an associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, said he did not think releasing the names of the accused would qualify as a clearly unwarranted violation of privacy under state law.

“I think the law is very clear that this very file information about students’ disciplinary action is a public record,” Campbell said before the committee.

He added that the public interest related to disclosing the names to the public exceeded any violation of privacy.

Still, Jenny Erazo, a victim advocate at Utah State University, testified at the meeting that disclosure of perpetrators’ names would stop students from wanting to report. She said victims fear that the information could identify them as a victim, something that would compromise the Title IX process.

“It allows the student to report and get some sense of closure to a really ugly, ugly experience in a more private way,” Erazo said in front of the committee.

Melissa Frost, director of the Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at Utah Valley University who serves as the school’s Title IX Coordinator, said victims are often hesitant to release the names of the perpetrator for fear of retaliation.

In an interview, Knox said she did not think the concern was broad enough to restrict the records, emphasizing that her request did not ask for the names of victims or witnesses in the case.

“I think the public interest outweighed the very slim possibility mentioned in the other side’s testimony,” Knox said.

In his testimony, Campbell said the state releases the names of sex offenders even though victims may not want the name of their perpetrator being released.

Ultimately, he said, the committee’s vote might have been influenced by the emotional testimony from victim advocates — making the determination of what disclosures should be permitted a “tough balancing case.”

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

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