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This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Freedom of Information Committee Chair

David Cuillier
Director and Associate Professor
School of Journalism
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
Work: 520-626-9694
Bio (click to expand) David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he researches and teaches access to public records, and is co-author with Charles Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." He served as FOI chair 2007-11 before becoming a national officer and serving as SPJ president in 2013-14.

Before entering academia, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Pacific Northwest. He has testified before Congress on FOI issues twice and provides newsroom training in access on behalf of SPJ. His long-term goal is to see a unified coalition of journalism organizations fighting for press freedom and funded through an endowed FOI war chest.

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Home > Freedom of Information > Reading Room > FERPA: Murphy’s Law

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. 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.
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