SPJ Reading Room
FERPA: Murphy’s Law
By David Chartrand
• The Family Educational Rights And Privacy Act (FERPA) is proof that any law that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.
• There is an inverse relationship between the number of university officials in charge of media relations and the number who have read FERPA and know its provisions.
• If government bureaucrats interpreted the Ten Commandments the way they interpret privacy law, God would have them eaten by locusts.
• When you think about how schools apply FERPA — student newspapers with student names removed — INSANE hardly covers it.
• If you presume that FERPA does not apply to your request — a copy of tomorrow’s school lunch menu, for example — school officials will presume the opposite.
• If the dean of students learns that a campus dormitory has no fire extinguishers he will act swiftly to protect the health and safety of students. If he learns that a dorm resident is at risk for suicide, he will protect the student’s privacy by doing nothing. Later he will call a press conference to announce that FERPA does not apply to deceased persons.
• As journalists spend more time explaining FERPA’s exceptions to the government, the government will spend more tax dollars trying to close the loopholes.
• Before asking whether specific records are sealed under FERPA, make sure you know the answer. The response may be more newsworthy, and more entertaining, than the records.
• If there exists a concise explanation of FERPA’s provisions, you will never receive it. If you do it will be out of date.
• The university’s interpretation of FERPA is the absolute truth unless you ask that it be put in writing.
• You can fool all journalists some of the time, and some journalists all of the time, but you can’t fool those who keep a copy of FERPA in their glove compartments.
• Rather than train administrators about FERPA, a university will refer all records requests to outside legal counsel who charges $350 an hour to deny all media requests.
• The chance of a university document falling into your hands without a FERPA battle is equal to the chance of bread falling with the buttered side up.
• The university will always follow its legal counsel’s advice because, hey, he charges $350 an hour.
• If even one student attended a university meeting, the entire meeting record will be considered a FERPA secret. In an emergency, the university will cite the privacy rights of students living in the same zip code as the meeting location.
• When weighing the privacy rights of a rapist against the rights of his victim, schools will interpret FERPA according to the scientific principle that anything that can be done can be done stupidly.
• FERPA doesn’t protect privacy; an unlisted phone number does.
• There are no rewards for public officials who properly enforce federal privacy law; there are only penalties for those who fail to understand that a little ignorance can go a long way.
• The cost of teaching school administrators the wrong way to handle the release of public documents is roughly equivalent to the cost of teaching them the right way.
• A rule of thumb for journalists covering public education: When two or more school administrators give you the same incorrect explanation for refusing to release documents, none of them will be responsible.
• If you feel you’ve finally mastered federal privacy law, lie down and keep your feet elevated. The sensation will go away.
© 2009, David Chartrand. www.davidchartrand.com. Mr. Chartrand writes humor and commentary from his home in Olathe, Kansas. Email him at dvc@davidchartrand. com. He is a member of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee.