Florida appellate court rules in favor of student news site in records lawsuit

FLORIDA—Student government records can’t be withheld from journalists on the grounds of educational privacy, a Florida appeals court has affirmed.

The 5th District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling against the University of Central Florida in a records case brought by a student newspaper.

The appellate court issued a one-sentence order Tuesday agreeing with the Florida 9th Circuit court’s finding that the school was wrong to redact the names of student officials from public records describing their allocation of school funds.

Knight News, UCF’s independent student news site, has filed multiple records lawsuits against their university over the last four years. Time and again, the university withheld names of students in public documents citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“It initially started when we requested records regarding Greek Life and our editors were sent away from the location that held the records,” Joe Klawe-Genao, the news editor for Knight News, said. “That’s where the rift between UCF’s position on releasing public records or providing names within those records began, and then it carried over into SGA.”

In 2016, Knight News requested school financial documents that showed requests for and distribution of funds. Initially, the school failed to release them. When the documents were handed over, names of students, who allocate student fees as part of their role in student government, were redacted.

“We saw that as a conflict to open government, so we took them to court,” Klawe-Genao said. “These students have an obligation, like real life government officials, to face scrutiny, to face a closer inspection and for these public records to be open to anybody to inspect for themselves.”

When oral arguments were held June 8, Judge Brian Lambert posed a hypothetical question to the university’s attorneys: if a student, say the student government president, received a $25,000 reimbursement for travel expenses, and a curious citizen requested information about that expenditure, would the university release the student’s name?

The university said that they would not disclose the student’s name, even if he was a student leader.

Judge Lambert said that taxpayers fund student government and if they cannot see important details of its expenditures, there could arise situations like the hypothetical character Bob Smith, president of SGA and son of the university president, who receives $25,000 in reimbursement for travel.

Klawe-Genao said the university cited FERPA, which prohibits disclosure of “education records,” even though the paper found that other universities had contradictory policies.

The trial court decision said the records did not constitute education records, because they would not be part of any student’s record. If students were to request their records maintained by the university, these spending sheets would not be called up just because their names may be mentioned in them.

“Here, the requested information-records reflecting the spending habits of the student government—even assuming they directly relate to the students whose names were redacted, are not maintained by the university in the manner contemplated by FERPA of education records,” the decision said.

With public positions comes reduced privacy. Klawe-Genao said that the responsibility, and in some ways privilege, of allocating funds comes the responsibility of being accountable for decisions that were made in the service of a public institution.

The trial court agreed, saying, “UCF concedes that the redacted names belong solely to elected officers of the student government, and given the nature of student government, those students implicitly consented to the requested dissemination,” citing one of Knight News’ previous cases against UCF.

This case is not unlike a handful of other FERPA related cases in progress across the country. The University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University are suing their student newspapers to prevent the release of Title IX investigation records they consider private under FERPA.

In those cases and in Knight News’ case against UCF, the ramifications will echo across the state and possibly the country.

What does make the UCF lawsuits unique are repeated attempts by the university to seek compensation from the independent news site for the school’s legal fees. Each request has been denied by the courts.

Klawe-Genao said other Florida universities responded to open records requests similar to the one Knight News was suing over by saying they would keeping an eye on the case against UCF because it could influence what the universities were permitted to release.

Many open government and free speech groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center are critical of the way many universities apply FERPA to serve as a blanket protection from releasing records that damage the image of the university.

Six such groups, including the SPLC, filed an amicus in support of Knight News in February, and the news organization was honored with the 2016 College Press Freedom Award in October.

“As far as the trend of universities using FERPA more, hopefully our (victory) reduces that and narrows down the exceptions toward FERPA,” Klawe-Genao said.

Klawe-Genao said he doesn’t believe the university will try to appeal the decision to the Florida Supreme Court. UCF did not respond to request for comment.

SPLC staff writer Marjorie Kirk can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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