Home > Freedom of Information > Reporter’s Guide to FERPA > FERPA: Murphy’s Law

Reporter’s Guide to FERPA
Navigating the Family Educational Rights
and Privacy Act

FERPA: Murphy’s Law
Before Asking a FERPA Question, Make Sure You Know The Answer

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 FERPA is applied — high school newspapers with photographs of nameless students — INSANE hardly covers it.

• Public officials are not trained in the provisions of FERPA. They are trained in denying FERPA requests promptly and with confidence.

• When FERPA does not remotely apply to the release of an innocuous public document — tomorrow’s school lunch menu, for example — the school superintendent’s office will presume the opposite.

• A journalist cannot violate someone’s right to privacy unless a right to privacy exists. Not that this ever makes any difference.

• 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 school officials if specific documents are protected under FERPA, make sure you know the answer. Their response may be more newsworthy, and more entertaining, than the documents.

• If there exists a concise explanation of FERPA’s provisions, you will never receive it.

• If you receive it, it will be out of date.

• You can fool all journalists some of the time, and some journalists all of the time, but you can’t fool the ones who keep a copy of FERPA in their glove compartments.

• If two senior campus officials review your newspaper’s request and both agree that release of the information would constitute a FERPA violation, it follows that (1) You should request two more opinions, (2) Both of them are fibbing, or (3) The two officials are actually the same person.

• Rather than train employees about FERPA, a major university will refer a journalist’s inquiry to outside legal counsel who charges $350 an hour to deny all media requests.

• The university will always follow its legal counsel’s advice because, hey, he charges $350 an hour.

• In the war between information and secrecy, secrecy hires all the big law firms.

• If a school principal permits a local reporter to interview students without first obtaining a signed release from all the parents, there is little chance of violating anyone’s privacy . There is a good chance, however, that the principal will soon be working at the local Home Depot.

• 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.

• There are no rewards for public officials who properly interpret federal privacy law; there are only penalties for those who fail to understand that a little ignorance can go a long way.

• FERPA doesn’t protect privacy; an unlisted phone number does.

• The cost of teaching your school administrators the wrong way to handle the release of public documents is roughly equivalent to the cost of teaching them the right way.

• Anything the chancellor’s attorney tells you about FERPA is the absolute truth unless you ask him to put it in writing.

• A rule of thumb for journalists covering public education: When two or more school administrators give you the same incorrect explanation for the refusal to release documents, none of them will have to take the blame.

• If you feel you have finally mastered federal privacy laws and regulations, lie down and keep your feet elevated. The sensation will go away.

© 2009, David Chartrand

David Chartrand writes humor and commentary from his home in Olathe, Kansas. You can reach him at dvc@davidchartrand.com. He is a member of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee.

Want a poster-sized version of FERPA’S LAWs for your newsroom? Email David at davchart@mac.com.

> Next: Additional Resources

Join SPJ
Join SPJWhy join?