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SPJ WINS FOI BATTLE IN RELEASE
Contact: Sarah A. Shrode, marketing/communications manager, Society of Professional Journalists, (317) 927-8000, ext. 217
The Society of Professional Journalists recently won several improvements in federal regulations guiding the release of certain college and university disciplinary records.
"The Department of Education considered and generally agreed with just about every one of our suggestions. And they added a few improvements that we applaud, especially because we didn't even have to ask for them," said Carolyn S. Carlson, founder of SPJ’s Campus Courts Task Force and coordinator of SPJ’s commentary on the regulations first proposed in May 1999. "I really don’t see anything we just can’t live with."
The regulations allow schools to release the name of the perpetrator, the violation committed and the sanctions imposed. SPJ had complained that the original regulations did not define those terms.
The new regulations simply remove the federal prohibition against disclosure. How quickly and even whether this information would have to be released depends on the requirements of each state's open records law.
The biggest surprise in the new regulations was the Department of Education’s (DOE) liberal definition of "final results." The regulations implement an amendment to the 1998 Higher Education Act that removed Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act barriers from the public release of the final results of disciplinary action involving crimes of violence and non-forcible sex offenses.
Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, current SPJ president, said supporters of the new regulations had not expected to see these "final results" until after the exhaustion of all appeals and internal reviews. To get them after the initial ruling means the media will be able to alert the public to the outcome of the crime in a far more timely manner.
"With this change on when ‘final results’ occur, the DOE demonstrates a strong concern for campus safety, which is to be applauded," Niederpruem said.
The Department of Education ruled that schools may release the "final results" from a campus proceeding once it is concluded and need not wait on any appeals process. All such records produced on or after Oct. 7, 1998, (the date the law was signed) may be released as public records.
In the new regulations, the Department of Education defined "violation committed" by including an exhaustive list of violent and non-forcible sex crimes and their definitions and saying that schools also should release "any essential findings supporting the institution’s conclusion that the violation was committed."
The Department of Education adopted SPJ’s suggestion for the definition of "sanction imposed," saying it "means a description of the disciplinary action taken by the institution, the date of its imposition, and its duration."
"The regulations released Thursday by the Department of Education are a huge improvement over the skeletal proposed regs they released a year ago," said Carlson, a former SPJ national president. "They are now specific enough that the college media can receive adequate information to tie the outcome of disciplinary actions to crimes they’d reported on when they occurred.
"While it doesn’t spell out what those ‘essential findings’ would be, I think that the nature, date, time and location of the offense would be essential to any conviction and therefore should be released," Carlson added.
The Department of Education also followed SPJ’s advice that schools need not create an entirely new system of paperwork but could adapt two existing forms to include the newly disclosable information. The Department of Education suggested that schools update their crime-log entries to include the disciplinary action resulting from specific incidents -- or that they simply release the disciplinary letter that they send to the perpetrator -- as long as either document includes the name, violation committed and sanction imposed.
After the original regulations were released, SPJ had complained in its comments that key terms needed to be defined.
"Without broad definitions for ‘violation committed’ and ‘any sanction imposed,’ university officials could believe that they are restricted by the law to releasing no more than a one-sentence record stating that ‘John Doe has been suspended for one semester for disorderly behavior,’ " wrote Bruce D. Brown, legal counsel to SPJ.
"A local or campus newspaper attempting to report on this disciplinary action would have no idea that the ‘disorderly behavior’ referenced in this record was, say, an assault at a campus concert or a fraternity house brawl -- incidents that the newspaper probably covered when they first occurred," Brown continued. "If the public can know the details of the original allegation, it’s only fair to all involved that the final disposition of that particular incident be fully and openly disseminated."
SPJ has been involved in the fight for release of disciplinary records for criminal behavior since 1992, when it helped finance a lawsuit that won the Red & Black student newspaper access to disciplinary records at the University of Georgia.
SPJ created the Campus Courts Task Force in 1994 with a mission to remove Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act barriers to disciplinary records. The task force includes representatives from more than 15 associations representing college educators and advisers and professional and campus media. The task force is led by William M. Lawbaugh, a past president of the Society for Collegiate Journalists and an associate professor of Communications at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md.
The task force joined forces with the victim’s rights group Security on Campus Inc. to argue before Congress for changes in the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act. Inaddition to SPJ and task force leaders, representatives of the National Newspaper Association also participated in the legislative push.
The new regulations can be obtained from the DOE website at: