Florida appellate court rules that universities cannot withhold names of student government officials

FLORIDA — A state appellate judge said in an opinion released today that a trial court incorrectly allowed the University of Central Florida to withhold the names of student government officials accused or charged with misconduct.

Judge Kerry I. Evander for Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal wrote that the names of student government officials accused of misconduct are not protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law. Appellate judges Alan C. Lawson and James A. Edwards concurred in the opinion.

The decision comes in response to a petition for a rehearing filed in February by KnightNews.com, a student-run news organization at UCF. In 2013, the news organization filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging the school violated the state’s public records and open meetings laws by holding secret hearings for hazing and other student conduct violations. The trial court sided with the university on 16 of the 17 counts.

The appellate court withdrew its previous opinion from February 5, which had affirmed the trial court’s decision. This time, the three-judge panel concluded that the trial court erred on the count of student government officers’ names, but still affirmed the trial court and sided with the university on all other counts. The court denied KnightNews.com’s motion for rehearing the case with all 15 appellate judges.

In the new opinion, Evander wrote that the university properly withheld documents that would have identified students accused of hazing. He ruled that documents were classified as an “education record” and thus protected by FERPA — a viewpoint also expressed in an opinion on the case released earlier this year.

Brigitte Snedeker, editor-in-chief of KnightNews.com, said the ruling was a victory for small news organizations. After hearing the ruling, she said she feels a sense of comfort knowing that student government officers will be held accountable for their actions.

Snedeker said they have been fighting the issue for a long time, and had to use money on legal fees that they would have used to buy another camera or send reporters on assignment.

“We’ve definitely been sacrificing to make it through and I’m glad to see our hard work pay off,” she said.

In the decision, Evander writes that the names of student government officials accused or charged of wrongdoing did not qualify as “personally identifiable information” and were not protected under FERPA.

By seeking election or appointment in student government, Evander writes that students “implicitly consented to the dissemination” of their names and should be aware that they might be disciplined “for misconduct in the performance of their student government duties or alleged misconduct related to their election or appointment.”

Florida law states that student government officials can be removed from office through a referendum for neglect of duty, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties or conviction of a felony, among other justifications.

KnightNews.com’s attorney Justin Hemlepp said the organization continues to evaluate its options moving forward in light of the recent decision. He said the court’s ruling suggests that the university unlawfully closed a student government election hearing last month.

KnightNews.com had filed an emergency complaint for a temporary injunction to require the university’s board of trustees to open the student government Election Commission hearings to the public, after reporters were barred from attending. The injunction was not granted.

Hemlepp said FERPA cannot be applied to every piece of paper a student is associated with, and the court made the right decision in allowing the names of student government officers to be public.

When it came to revealing the identities of student accused of hazing, Evander found the trial court was correct when it ruled in favor of the university and allowed them to withhold the identities of students who had been accused of hazing. He cited a ruling in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case United States v. Miami University, which concluded that student disciplinary records are protected by FERPA because they meet the statutory definition of “education records.”

FERPA and its regulations state that the outcome of student disciplinary proceedings can be released when a student is found to have violated school rules by committing a violent crime or non-forcible sex offense. Yet, as he stated in the first opinion, Evander wrote that the documents regarding alleged hazing incidents did not fall within the parameters and were classified as “student disciplinary records.”

Snedeker said she understood that argument, but she thought journalists would use ethical judgement when receiving the names.

“I would have liked to see those names released,” she said.

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

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