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Federal judge refuses to allow newspaper access to student records

The Associated Press

03.21.00

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal judge has denied a newspaper access to student disciplinary records from two Ohio universities, ruling that students' privacy outweighs the public's right to know.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based weekly newspaper, had challenged a U.S. Department of Education lawsuit against Miami of Ohio and Ohio State universities.

The Department of Education sued in 1998 to stop the schools from releasing students' records if the students' names are included. The department says such disclosures violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which bars the release of education records that identify people.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year that the records were not education records, and the U.S. Supreme Court in December refused to consider the case, in effect leaving the Ohio court's ruling intact. But the Education Department argues they are education records subject to privacy requirements.

The Chronicle of Higher Education had requested information that the federal lawsuit blocked, including students' names.

U.S. District Judge George Smith concluded yesterday that an injunction enforcing the federal privacy act would cause only slight harm to third parties such as students, prospective students, and parents.

"Additionally, the public, while certainly benefiting from laws that promote openness in public records, also benefits from the privacy accorded students through FERPA," Smith wrote. "Congress, through FERPA, has balanced the interests of privacy versus public disclosure and the Court is in no position to second guess it."

Marc Mezibov, a Cincinnati lawyer representing the newspaper, said yesterday that he and Chronicle officials must study Smith's ruling before deciding whether to appeal.

"The Chronicle believes records of student disciplinary rulings are of a paramount concern not only to college communities but prospective students and their parents," Mezibov said. "Issues of crime on campus are matters of considerable concern not only to college communities but prospective students and their parents."

Miami University spokesman Richard Little said the university needed the courts to clarify exactly what records it legally could release.

"We had been saying over and over again that this is what the federal government says, that these are personal records," Little said. "We just wanted clarification and this is what we got. The judge said ... these are private records."

Ohio State officials said today that the school would continue to release campus crime statistics and statistics from campus disciplinary proceedings. The university will also "continue to issue crime alerts in situations involving significant potential risks to the university community, as required by the Campus Right to Know Act."

The federal lawsuit followed an Ohio Supreme Court case in which student editors for the Miami University campus newspaper, the Miami Student, sought the release of records from on-campus disciplinary hearings. The Ohio court backed the Miami Student's initial request, which did not seek students' names.

Miami University refused to release the information until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. When the university gave The Chronicle of Higher Education some student disciplinary records, with only the students' Social Security numbers deleted, the Education Department filed its lawsuit.

Update

University disciplinary records ruled private
6th Circuit panel blocks newspaper's bid to view documents, saying students' right to privacy outweighs public's right of access to information.  06.28.02

Related

Press advocates applaud high court ruling in student-privacy case
Reporters Committee says journalists' newsgathering ability would have been limited if Supreme Court had allowed university to be sued for divulging student information.  06.21.02

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