Alabama Supreme Court rules ASU documents protected under FERPA

ALABAMA — The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday ruled against a newspaper seeking names of students who lost their football scholarships at Alabama State University.

The court sided with the university in an 8-0 decision stating that releasing documents relating to students’ financial aid, even with redactions, would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The Supreme Court reversed a September trial court decision in favor of the newspaper, ordering ASU to release redacted documents.

The Montgomery Advertiser filed a lawsuit in June 2015 after reporter Josh Moon requested copies of all financial aid forms submitted to the ASU director of compliance involving students participating in the football program since Dec. 15, 2014, according to the decision.

Other than the students’ names and addresses, the form includes ASU identification numbers, sports the students are involved in and why their scholarships have been reduced or cancelled.

After ASU told Moon the documents he requested would be completely redacted, Moon asked for a list of the players whose scholarships had been revoked since Dec. 15, 2014, the decision states. ASU told him the university could not release that information because it would be a violation of FERPA.

The newspaper argued it would not be a FERPA violation if ASU redacted non-directory information and the Montgomery County Circuit Court agreed, stating “there are undeniable benefits that come from government transparency,” according to the ruling. ASU appealed the trial court’s decision.

The university argued releasing the redacted forms would still reveal more than directory information and the state Supreme Court concurred. The court said giving over redacted documents would allow the public to know which students had lost their scholarships, consequently releasing financial aid information.

“Even as heavily redacted as the requested financial-aid forms would be under the trial court’s judgment, the very nature of the financial aid form would provide the Advertiser with information related to the student’s financial aid — specifically, that the student referenced on the form has had his or her athletic financial aid reduced or canceled,” the decision reads.

Moon said the ruling will kill future efforts to get information or insight into how scholarships are awarded at universities around the state.

“I thought (the ruling) was pretty terrible,” Moon said. “FERPA has been used to kill more records requests than any other acronym in history.”

Moon said he believes the court incorrectly applied a law that governs federal financial aid to prohibit the release of internal financial aid forms.

Dennis Bailey, an attorney representing the Advertiser, said he is not sure how colleges will react to the Court’s decision.

“I would think some colleges would not want to concede that these records are protected under FERPA,” Bailey said. “(Universities) frequently release similar information to promote their programs when they sign athletes and it could be argued that they should not do so under FERPA.”

Bailey and Moon said they are unsure of whether the newspaper will appeal the decision.

ASU declined to be interviewed for this story.

SPLC staff writer Kaelynn Knoernschild can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.

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