UPDATE: UCF files request for financial sanctions against student media in open records lawsuit

FLORIDA — The University of Central Florida is asking a court to order a student-run news website, Knight News, to pay the university’s attorneys fees in an open records lawsuit the student media outlet filed against the university.

Knight News, an independent student news organization covering the Orlando-based university, filed the initial lawsuit against UCF on May 23, 2016. It marked the third such lawsuit filed by the student media outlet against the university citing noncompliance with open records and sunshine laws.

In this most recent complaint, Knight News (referred to in court documents as “KNI”) sought to obtain budget requests submitted to the Student Government Association along with an electronic copy of the Activities and Services Fee financial database.

Michael Williams, a reporter for Knight News who covers student government, said the organization requested the records to ascertain how student funds were being spent. The SGA passed an $18.6 million budget this past spring.

When the SGA failed to respond to this request, the newspaper, with the help of local counsel, filed a lawsuit for the documents. The university then released heavily redacted versions of the requested documents on June 3.

“They redact the names of students involved with SGA finance, citing their FERPA rights,” Williams said. “Which, we can’t do our job if we don’t have any names.”

FERPA is the federal privacy statute that protects the confidentiality of students’ “education records” that are centrally maintained in a university database.

Now, UCF has filed a response to this complaint requesting the court award the cost of UCF’s attorney fees in response to this latest complaint. The court document cites similar ongoing litigation as support for their argument that this new lawsuit is “bereft of merit” and that “KNI should be held accountable for reimbursing UCF’s attorneys’ fees incurred in responding to KNI’s meritless motion.”

The specific lawsuit cited by UCF in their most recent request for attorney’s fees was initially decided in the university’s favor on all but one count by a trial-court judge.

The state’s 5th District Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in February, but the court granted Knight News’ request for rehearing, and amended their decision in April to specify that the names of student government officials accused of misconduct are not protected by FERPA.

The appellate court has since denied UCF’s motion for rehearing in that matter.

Justin Hemlepp, the Florida attorney working on this and two other lawsuits filed by Knight News, said the budget documents and ASF database records requested by Knight News are needed to explain how student fee money has been allocated.

“What we’re saying is a.) that’s not an education record at all, and b.) that according to [the appeals court’s] most recent opinion, that if there is any education record protection at all, that they waived that because of their participation in student government,” he said.

Hemlepp also pointed out that this is the university’s eighth attempt over the course of three open-records and open-meetings lawsuits to seek the reimbursement of attorney’s fees, which is unusual in open-government litigation. Typically, the plaintiff bringing an open-government lawsuit qualifies for reimbursement of attorney fees if the suit succeeds, while each side absorbs its own costs if the suit does not succeed.

“They’re trying to sanction their own students,” Hemlepp said. “They’re asking for half from the plaintiffs and half from me.”

Williams said he’s dismayed by the university’s voracity in pursuing punitive action against its own students.

“We’re trying to learn the craft of journalism while attending their school,” Williams said. “And I thought the university would, I don’t want to say I thought they’d have our back, but I certainly thought they’d be more open to letting student journalists try journalism.”

Knight news is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2009. With the recent shuttering of UCF’s official campus newspaper, the Gannett-owned Central Florida Future, Knight News is the only independent student news publication covering the campus of more than 60,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

“I do know that if we had to pay those attorney’s fees, it would cripple us,” Williams said. “It would absolutely cripple us.”

In the meantime, a case management conference was held Tuesday. No action was taken on UCF’s most recent motion to be awarded attorney’s fees, and the judge granted both parties a seven-day extension to collect more documents

“At the end of the day, this is stuff that is and always has been public and UCF is, for some reason that I cannot divine, engaged in a very creative interpretation of what these rules mean,” Hemlepp said.

That sentiment was echoed by Knight News’ editor-in-chief, Brigitte Snedeker. In an email she sent making the initial request for the ASF financial database, she wrote that SGA had provided this same information a few years prior and that someone in the office might have previous experience in fulfilling the request.

“It’s been really hard to keep track, if I’m being honest,” Snedeker said when SPLC inquired after this seeming inconsistency in the university’s handling of records requests. “Because about 10 years, before I came to UCF, my advisor told us that this was all public information. There was no problem getting it.”

Then, Snedeker said, around 2010 the university started exercising more restraint, without consistency or apparent cause, in responding to records requests.

For Hemlepp, that resistance is both perplexing and troubling.

“The student government at the University of Central Florida is not making B-52 bombers; they’re not the Pentagon; they’re not the CIA,” Hemlepp said. “They’re sending people to Chess Club meetings and lobbying on behalf of students at state and federal government.

“That is not a secret education record, it has nothing to do with their class, their SAT score, their psychological evaluation, or anything like that.”

When contacted for this story, the assistant vice president for news and information at UCF, Chad Binette, declined to speak.

“We don’t typically comment on pending litigation, so I’m going to pass,” he said.

SPLC Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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