The Society for Professional Journalists has published a usefully thorough examination of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the 1974 federal law governing access to student educational and disciplinary records. Working in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation (GFAF), SPJ’s report details both how FERPA works—that is, what materials it does and does not cover and to whom its protections apply—and how it fails. Specifically, SPJ argues that FERPA "has been twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret," and implores both student journalists and their professional counterparts to push back against the increasing misuse of FERPA as a one-size-fits-all justification for hiding public records. SPJ’s report is designed to "help journalists and citizens understand their rights to education records and not allow school officials to hide important public information while still protecting legitimate student privacy."
SPJ’s report directly addresses a concern we’ve covered here on The Torch before: namely, that investigative journalism on campus is being stymied by universities giving FERPA a needlessly expansive reading in order to prevent the release of unflattering information. For example, last summer, Azhar highlighted an opinion piece in Ohio State University student newspaper The Lantern that raised this issue, following an illuminating May 2009 report in The Columbus Dispatch documenting the ways in which collegiate athletic departments invoke FERPA to deflect inquiries into department practices. As Azhar wrote:
FERPA was enacted to provide students with confidentiality in their educational records, including student disciplinary records, and to provide students and their parents with access to those records. It is meant to ensure that a student’s educational records are not disclosed to a third party, the press, or the general public without the student’s consent. However, as the Lantern editorial discusses, colleges and universities have used FERPA to withhold many institutional records arguably outside the scope of FERPA out of the public realm:
According to former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley, FERPA was intended to protect students’ academic records from public publishing and scrutiny. This law, which theoretically leaves it up to the students to control who can see their transcripts and GPA, has been used to censor a wide range of information, from NCAA violations to information about comp’d sports tickets.
The result, according to the article, is that journalists are too often frustrated in their attempts to expose institutional policy and practice, including the use of public funds, to the public. Universities are therefore able to hide behind FERPA rather than face public scrutiny for their actions.
FIRE, SPJ, and GFAF are not the only groups sounding the alarm about FERPA’s misuse. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) has repeatedly issued press releases in recent years warning that FERPA’s expansion threatens accountability and transparency, making the public assessment of the performance of our nation’s public schools that much harder.
We’re pleased that SPJ has lent its voice to the growing cry against FERPA’s misuse, and we hope that student journalists (and CFN members!) will check out SPJ’s ten ideas for FERPA-related journalism.