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Individuals Should Not Be Allowed to Sue Over FERPA Violations, SPJ Says
Charles N. Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, 573/882-5736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment Legal Counsel, 202/861-1660 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists and other media organizations are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that would permit individuals to sue for damages over alleged violations of the law.
A friend-of-the-court legal brief was filed Friday in the U.S. Supreme Court by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and signed by the Society of Professional Journalists and two other organizations.
“The court’s opinion opens a mile-wide loophole for campuses to again begin denying reporters the most basic information about what happens on their campus,” said Freedom of Information Co-Chairman Charles N. Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri. “SPJ has invested years of work dragging college campuses into the sunshine. Allowing private actions under FERPA undoes that work in a single day.”
FERPA creates obligations for educational institutions to maintain confidentiality of certain student records. If they don’t, they can lose federal funding. But the Washington Supreme Court in Doe vs. Gonzaga decided last May that Section 1983 of the federal civil rights laws also permits persons to file lawsuits against educational institutions themselves for monetary damages for FERPA violations.
SPJ and other media organizations argue that the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling would create volumes of litigation from privacy advocates, encourage educational institutions to withhold excessive amounts of records from the public for fear of lawsuits, and obliterate years of work in state legislatures to balance privacy interests with the public’s need for information on government and institutions.
“The Society doesn’t often argue against the expansion of federal civil rights laws, but here the expansion would be at the expense of openness,” said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, of Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. “If FERPA were interpreted to allow private lawsuits for money damages, it would provide powerful incentives to educational institutions to overcompensate and hold up the release of records to the public. That’s a result no journalism organization would want to see.”
Other organizations joining the RCFP’s friend-of-the-court brief were the Student Press Law Center and Security on Campus, Inc.
To download a copy of the friend-of-the-court legal brief, log on to http://www.spj.org/briefs/022502.pdf
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.