UPDATE: Florida trial court rules UCF must turn over records to student news outlet

FLORIDA — The 9th Judicial Circuit Court for Florida issued an order Thursday granting a student news outlet’s request for unredacted Student Government Association budget records from the University of Central Florida.

The order requires UCF to supply the records within 48 hours.

Judge John E. Jordan rejected the university’s argument that documents memorializing payments made to student government officers can be withheld as “education records” under federal privacy law.

The ruling comes after the university failed to produce complete records in response to Knight News’ initial request in April and the independent online news outlet filed a lawsuit May 23 under Florida’s open government statutes.

This decision did not address two outstanding counts of open meetings violations from December and April. Knight News has accused the SGA of holding a budget meeting during a time between terms when students were not on campus to participate, and of disallowing public comment during the spring meeting where the $18.6 million budget was passed.

Thursday’s ruling is the latest to address the recurring nationwide issue of when a school or college can withhold or redact documents requested by journalists on the grounds of student confidentiality.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects student education records and personally identifiable information from education records maintained by an academic institution. Failure to comply with FERPA can result in a school losing federal funding, though no institution has ever been penalized in the 43-year history of the statute.

Jordan noted that FERPA affords individuals the right to inspect their own “education records,” and that a document cannot be categorized as a FERPA record for confidentiality purposes unless it is also treated as a FERPA record when a student asks to see his own FERPA file.

“If a student or parent requested that student’s records as intended by FERPA,” the order states, “it is almost certain that that student or parent would not receive a copy of the requested Budget forms and A&S Fee Database records merely because the subject student’s name appeared somewhere in those documents.”

Further, Jordan ruled that a student’s participation in student government amounts to an implicit consent to waive their FERPA protections in relation to official SGA business.

In the order, the court cites another of of three ongoing lawsuits filed against UCF by Knight News, wherein the 5th Florida Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that student government disciplinary records are likewise not protected by FERPA.

“It was great news to wake up to, a great way to start the day,” said Michael Williams, a student reporter who covers student government for Knight News. He made the initial request for copies of SGA’s budget request forms.

“The judge ruled that UCF’s attempt to apply FERPA to these student government records was baseless and it was unnecessary.”

Additionally, the court denied UCF’s eighth and most recent request to impose sanctions on Knight News, which asked that the court require the news organization and their counsel to pay the university’s litigation costs.

“There’s nothing sanctionable about our conduct if we won,” said Justin Hemlepp, the Florida attorney representing Knight News.

Instead, in light of the court finding in Knight News’ favor, the court ordered UCF to pay the student publication’s litigation costs.

In response, the university filed a request to stay the order Thursday afternoon. In its filing, the university contends that there is a “substantial probability that opening the records for inspection will result in significant damage” to students’ privacy interests.

The specific records that are being disputed involve payments made to student government officers, such as expense reimbursements, which come from student activity fees.

The university is asking for a seven-day stay to “consider and weigh its options.” UCF could use that time to file an appeal. As of Friday, the court had not issued an order responding to the request for stay.

Chad Binette, the assistant vice president for news and information at UCF, responded in an email.

“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling, and we are evaluating our options. Our goal has always been to comply with both public records laws and federal laws protecting the privacy of student information.”

In spite of this possible delay, Williams is happy with the decision, and determined that Knight News will report on any story that arises from the documents, once they’re released, that concerns the student body.

“I think it’s just a great victory both for student journalists across the country and for open government advocates across the country,” Williams said.

“It just goes to show that with a little bit of tenacity, with a little bit of grit and all that, that student journalists really can make a difference.”

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

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