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• If you receive it, it will be out of date.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

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