America’s public schools and colleges spend $1.1 trillion a year, but often shun public input and accountability. In disregard of toothless open-government laws, colleges are shutting citizens out of trustee meetings, sanitizing their crime statistics, and hiring crony presidents in backroom deals. Dysfunctional student privacy laws are routinely abused to conceal unflattering information the public needs to know. Well-trained student journalists are kicking open the doors that wrongdoers prefer to keep shut.
What we believe
Open-records laws need a 21st-century reboot, including meaningful penalties for noncompliance. Public access to police reports – especially those at secretive private colleges – needs clarifying so that only information essential to protect “hot pursuit” investigations can be withheld. FERPA, the federal student privacy statute, must be overhauled to prevent colleges and schools from frivolously invoking “student privacy” to withhold non-confidential records. The public’s right to access should include publicly subsidized “quasi-government” entities, like state school-board associations, that are driving public policy from the shadows.
What we’re doing about it
- Our online fill-in-the-blanks open-records template is used more than 23,000 times a year by requesters who need help obtaining public records.
- Our attorney-led workshops train hundreds of young journalists each year to use government documents to tell compelling stories about campus consumer rip-offs and safety hazards.
- We call out government wrongdoers who misuse FERPA to obstruct public accountability, and we’re leading a coalition of transparency advocates working for FERPA reform.
- Our volunteer attorneys represent the interests of student journalists in precedent-setting cases safeguarding the right of access to essential public documents.
- We publicize and reward outstanding public-records journalism, and provide how-to guides to inspire students to be campus watchdogs.
- Our attorneys advocate for transparency in campus police departments, especially those at secretive private colleges.
How you can help
- Request your own FERPA records from your college or school to expose the hypocrisy of institutionsthat misclassify documents as “FERPA records” when journalists need them, thenwithhold those same records when a student wants to correct his own file.
- Let your member of Congress know that the FERPA studentprivacy statute needs a total rewrite to prevent colleges and schools fromthrowing an “invisibility cloak” over essential information the public needs toknow.
- Support stronger state open-government statutes ensuringthat college presidential searches include meaningful public input, and thatprivate universities can’t conceal records when they’re using state-delegatedpolice authority.
- Participate in, and share, SPLC’s annual “public recordsaudits” that have exposed unlawful restraints on student-athlete speech,anti-consumer college meal plans and other abuses.