By Paige Cornwell
The Working Press
When an Arizona judge ignored Pima Community College’s protests and ordered the school to release internal correspondence about Tucson shooter Jared Loughner, media professionals lauded the action.
But such decisions have not been easy when it comes to the controversial Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, as it is commonly known.
Pima College was using the federal student privacy law — which dictates what administrators can or cannot conceal — to keep journalists at bay.
Just last month, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that documents relating to the 2007 sexual assault arrests of two University of Iowa football players would remain covered under FERPA. The players were accused of sexually assaulting a female student in her dorm in the middle of the night.
The Iowa City Press-Citizen filed a request for information relating to the school’s internal investigation. Citing FERPA guidelines, the university withheld the information. The newspaper sued.
By this time, the athletes’ names had been widely reported, said Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The players later were convicted on assault charges, according to court documents.
“There’s a common refrain from colleges, that ‘when you say FOIA, we say FERPA,’” Caramanica said.
In Loughner’s case, Pima College released 250 emails documenting concerns about his mental state that led the college to expel him three months before he went on a shooting rampage near Tucson that left six dead and 13 wounded — including former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The public doesn’t care about the average student’s grades, LoMonte said, but it does care about “the honesty of a college athletics program, an interest in the safety of campuses and how lawsuits are getting resolved.”
FERPA defines “education records” as any record directly relating to a student that is maintained by an education agency or institution.
But interpretation of the law varies.
Before the judge’s ruling, Pima College claimed emails between school officials regarding Loughner’s erratic behavior were exempt from the state’s public records law. At one point, John Richardson, a college attorney, said some of the emails included grades and disciplinary actions, which are covered by the privacy act. Emails were stored on the same server as academic records, Richardson argued.
However, LoMonte argued that notes and memos were not covered under FERPA because they were not a part of a permanent file.
“Those documents are very important, because at that point, the public has an overriding right to know if the college mishandled a dangerous person,” said LoMonte. “It’s impossible to believe a mass murderer deserves privacy rights that override public knowledge.”
FERPA brings to the fore issues that journalists have been facing for years, press law advocates say.
Journalists should be knowledgeable about FERPA — what it does and does not cover — and they should be prepared to argue for documents that are not a part of students’ education records, Caramanica said.
Schools are conservative when it comes to disclosing documents, as a FERPA violation would result in losing federal funding.
However, no university or college has ever lost funding, Caramanica said.
“It’s almost never a right answer to say FERPA entitles you to no information,” LoMonte said. “You can bargain for some of what you want.”
Journalists should push for more, he said.
“They shouldn’t take no for an answer.”