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Agency shouldn't circumvent courts to keep records secret

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Media groups today questioned the authority of the U.S. Department of Education in seeking legal action to keep campus crime records secret.

At issue is a complaint filed Thursday, Jan. 2, in U.S. District Court in Columbus. The complaint seeks to enjoin two Ohio universities from releasing student disciplinary records related to campus crimes.

"This is an unusual course for a federal agency to take," said Fred Brown, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "No federal agency should be able to circumvent the courts and keep state records a secret."

The highest court in Ohio ruled in July 1997 that a state university cannot refuse to release its student disciplinary records under the state open records law.

The Miami Student at Miami University of Ohio had sued asking for records of the school's campus court proceedings, many of which involved crimes committed by students.

The university refused and lost the case before the state supreme court.

The media groups decried the use of the federal court to delay release of the records.

The complaint states that the release of the records is a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, often referred to as the Buckley Amendment. FERPA says schools that release "educational records" without a student’s permission can be denied federal funding.

Two universities, Miami University and Ohio State University, had released two months worth of data to The Chronicle of Higher Education. That information has yet to be published by The Chronicle.

"FERPA is frequently misapplied by those who want to cover up information on a campus," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "Two state supreme courts, in both Ohio and Georgia, have said that FERPA doesn't apply to campus disciplinary records."

The student center is a non-profit group based in Arlington, Va., that provides legal advice and assistance to journalists.

Goodman said there is no legal authority for the federal agency to go to court for potential violations of FERPA, calling this case "unprecedented."

HR 175, The Accuracy in Campus Crime Reporting Act, is currently pending in Congress. The bill seeks to clarify the federal law as well as guarantee that campus crime reports and police logs are public records.

The bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., and is supported by SPJ.

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