University disciplinary records ruled private
By The Associated Press
CINCINNATI Federal law prohibits universities from publicly releasing student disciplinary records, a U.S. appeals court ruled yesterday.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court's ruling that the right to privacy of students mentioned in such records outweighs the public's right of access to the documents.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national weekly newspaper, had sought student disciplinary records from Ohio State University and Miami University, also in Ohio.
U.S. District Judge George Smith of Columbus ruled against the newspaper in March 2000, saying releasing such records or any "personally identifiable information" would violate the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
A three-judge appeals court panel yesterday upheld Smith's ruling.
Judge Karl Forester said The Chronicle of Higher Education still could obtain information about campus crime by requesting student disciplinary records without the personally identifiable information. College officials could mark out such information before releasing the records.
Appeals judges Eugene Siler Jr. and Karen Moore joined Forester in the decision.
The Chronicle's lawyer, Marc Mezibov, said the newspaper will consider appealing to the full 6th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mezibov said he wants to ask the appeals court to reconsider the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last week that students cannot sue schools and colleges that improperly release their grades or other personal information. That 7-2 ruling in Gonzaga University v. John Doe was a setback for students and families seeking to keep information private, but school groups said it would head off costly and ineffective lawsuits.
Mezibov said the appellate court's ruling yesterday could prevent prospective students or their parents from obtaining information about discipline and campus crime.
"I think this ruling, if it stands, will certainly have a negative effect on literally thousands of people who have an interest in what goes on on the campuses of major universities in this state," he said.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal assistance to student newspaper editors, said he also disagreed with the ruling. He said it could allow students who engage in serious misconduct to be protected by secret campus disciplinary proceedings.
"It's extremely disturbing to me," Goodman said. "I don't think it bodes well for safety on college campuses."
Miami University spokeswoman Holly Wissing said, however, that students accused of serious offenses could be subject to criminal prosecution in courts. She said the court's ruling yesterday gives universities guidance on how to respond to requests for student disciplinary records.
"Our position throughout the litigation has been to be as open as the law allows us to be, while protecting the privacy of students," Wissing said.
The U.S. Department of Education had sued in 1998 to stop Miami and Ohio State from releasing records with students' names.
The court's ruling yesterday affirmed the government's position that the disciplinary records generally are not subject to public disclosure, said LeRoy Rooker, director of the U.S. Department of Education's family policy compliance office in Washington. His office administers the federal law at issue.
Rooker said universities would be allowed to identify students and the allegations against them if the offenses could be prosecuted.
The lawsuit followed an Ohio Supreme Court decision that upheld a 1995 request by the Miami University student newspaper for records from on-campus disciplinary hearings. The Ohio Supreme Court said those records could be released under the Ohio Public Records Act. The campus paper, The Miami Student, did not seek students' names.
The university appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to accept the case.
Goodman said he is concerned that the federal appeals court yesterday overruled the Ohio Supreme Court on what the state's open-records law will allow.
"This is a federal court saying we have the final word on what the Ohio Public Records Act says," he said.
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