MINNESOTA— Student journalists at St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota have filed a lawsuit against the school seeking access to a hallway surveillance video under the state open records act.
Filed Friday in Minnesota District Court on behalf of The Echo student newspaper, the lawsuit says St. Louis Park High School officials inappropriately denied a request to view security footage of a November incident in which a senior football player was accused of pulling off a freshman student’s hijab in a school hallway.
One day after the alleged incident occurred, The Echo co-editor-in-chief Maggie Bahnson filed an open records request in accordance with Minnesota state law for “access to and a copy of” security tapes from the hallway where the incident took place. The lawsuit says the school district denied the initial request and refused to meet with representatives from The Echo to discuss the request further.
In addition to requesting access to the security footage, co-editor-in-chief Ethan Brown filed a separate records request for all emails between administrators relating to the incident and its subsequent investigation. Brown received two emails, both of which were entirely redacted. In its response, the district cited the redacted data as both “nonresponsive” and “private educational data.”
This response indicates the district likely redacted the information based on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits the release of personally identifiable student information.
According to the lawsuit, The Echo is requesting access to the security tape purely for news reporting purposes and to dispel confusion about the incident.
The school conducted a mediation between the two students following the incident in which the football player denied any wrongdoing and was allowed to have his coach present and speak on his behalf, the lawsuit says. The freshman student had no one to speak on her behalf and could not object to the football coach’s presence. The senior football player was not charged following the mediation, and the security video was never played or reviewed.
In the lawsuit, The Echo says it is only requesting to review the security tape, and will not publish or disseminate the video to the public. The Echo says it is entitled to inspect the footage as St. Louis Park High School is a public property and the hallway is in full view of the public.
Christopher Seidl, an attorney with Robins Kaplan LLP in Minneapolis, is representing The Echo in the lawsuit. He said the main argument of the case is that a video of a public hallway should not be considered a private educational record.
“The Echo, like any good newspaper, is a truth seeker. In this situation, they’re looking to report on the truth of what happened on November 14,” he said. “There’s been a lot of rumor and speculation about that and they want to get to the bottom of it and set the record straight.”
Federal courts have differed on whether security tapes qualify as public record or whether they qualify as educational records protected under FERPA.
In 1997, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a video of a student beaten on a school bus was a public record and ordered it produced to news-media requesters. The judges found that FERPA does not give students an “expectation of privacy” in their behavior on school buses, and that the students were on notice that their actions were being taped and were visible to those around them.
A 2005 case in New York ended with a similar result. After a student was suspended from the Rome School District for an entire year following an altercation caught on video, he appealed for the video to be released as evidence supporting his case. The district declined, saying the video was protected under FERPA, and left the school liable to lose federal funding if they released it to the public. The court disagreed, and ruled the video be made available considering the it had already been viewed by both school and police officials.
More recently, however, a Utah court broke with these precedents and interpreted FERPA as a prohibition on releasing an unredacted school surveillance video to a parent whose child was involved in an altercation. The parent, Roger Bryner, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, but in October 2016, the justices declined his petition.
The Echo has demanded a jury trial, and is asking for an immediate injunction to review the security tape, an award of compensatory damages to be determined at trial, a civil penalty against the school district requiring them to comply with the request, and payment of any reasonable attorney fees.
In an email, a St. Louis Park school district spokesperson said that while The Echo believes it is entitled to see the video based on “newsworthiness,” the district has a duty to protect the privacy of its students.
“St. Louis Park Public Schools has a responsibility to comply with the laws relating to student information and to protect personally identifiable information related to our students. We take that responsibility seriously,” the statement read in part. “The school district clearly informed The Echo of our responsibility under the applicable law and fulfilled our responsibility when we advised The Echo that the information they requested was not accessible to them.”
SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318
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