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SUNY Oswego Inappropriately Cites FERPA in Refusing to Disclose Discipline Information

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reported last Wednesday that the State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) is denying requests from student newspaper The Oswegonian for information about conduct violations by Greek organizations, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is meant to ensure the privacy of students’ educational records, but colleges and universities often try to use the federal law to keep records hidden when those records contain potentially embarrassing information—even if releasing them poses no risk to students’ privacy. Oswegonian news editor Seamus Lyman claims that’s just what is happening at SUNY Oswego.

An editorial published in The Oswegonian earlier this month called for more transparency in Greek life on campus, arguing that the lack of information about the Greek system clashes with the school’s “semesterly anti-hazing emails” and other efforts to better the system. Students considering joining Greek life won’t know what they’re getting into without aggregated information about violations by Greek groups, the editorial argues, and students not involved in Greek life will remain unaware of the extent of problems in the Greek community.

In asking the school for its records, Lyman explained how SUNY Plattsburgh and other schools collect and share information about discipline against Greek groups in a way that maintains individual students’ privacy while still allowing students and student media access to important information. SUNY Oswego’s records access officer, Julie Blissert, said that the school did not have its records in a form that could be lawfully released.

But SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein said that “[t]here must be some form of the records, albeit redacted, that can be disclosed” consistent with FERPA. In speaking with FIRE, Goldstein explained that although the school might have to redact more than just names in order to maintain students’ anonymity, “it is impossible for [the documents] not to be redactable.”

It might be about time for SUNY Oswego to get in touch with Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who generally offered last September to assist schools that were struggling to maintain the balance between privacy and “sharing simple information.” Until then, SUNY Oswego could check out SPLC’s FERPA Fact blog for some guidance.

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