Over on the Student Press Law Center's blog, Frank LoMonte has an excellent post calling attention to a recent decision by a Montana state court in the case of Bozeman Daily Chronicle v. Montana State University.
The case concerned Montana State University's refusal to fulfill an open records request made by student journalists seeking documents about a professor's alleged misconduct. The university had refused to turn over the records, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that limits schools from disclosing student files in certain instances. But as the SPLC and FIRE know all too well, FERPA is often cited inappropriately by schools concerned far less with student privacy and far more with concealing potentially embarrassing information about university decisionmaking. FERPA invocations are often particularly frustrating for journalists, whose ability to get to the bottom of important campus stories can be readily thwarted by administrators wrongly claiming that certain records are covered under FERPA. In fact, the Society of Professional Journalists has an entire section of its website dedicated to dealing with FERPA.
Thankfully, as LoMonte explains, Judge Holly B. Brown recognized that the Montana State records requested by the student journalists weren't covered by FERPA, contrary to the university's claims:
In her ruling, Brown declined to classify the investigators' documents as "student records," noting that FERPA protects only records "of" a particular student, not records that incidentally mention students:
[T]he requested documents are directly related to the activities and behavior of Professor Komiyama and only tangentially related to the students involved. As a result, FERPA does not apply here.
Brown cited a string of prior rulings from across the country in which courts have reached the same interpretation of FERPA, most recently a 2009 Florida ruling in which Florida State University similarly tried — and failed — to withhold information about NCAA allegations against employees of its athletic department.
LoMonte notes that this common-sense ruling is part of a welcome trend:
Since the start of 2011, colleges in Arizona, North Carolina, Illinois and Florida all have lost cases brought by requesters whose documents were withheld on the grounds of FERPA confidentiality (several K-12 schools have as well).
While everyone agrees that core student records — those dealing with grades, attendance, aptitude tests, minor disciplinary scrapes and the like — should be protected against disclosure, colleges and schools have come to regard FERPA as a catch-all excuse to deny requests for just about any public document that they deem embarrassing or inconvenient to produce.
We thank the good folks at the SPLC for the heads-up on this ruling, and urge everyone to check out the full post here.