Judge sides with government in restricting release of campus crime records

Tuesday, February 17, 1998


The battle over release of campus crime records in Ohio continues in the courts. A federal judge has overturned a state supreme court decision that granted requests from two university newspapers to access disciplinary records previously protected as part of student “educational records.”


Ohio federal district court Judge George C. Smith in United States v. Miami University recently issued an order temporarily preventing Miami University and Ohio State University from releasing student disciplinary records to The Chronicle of Higher Education.


The Ohio Supreme Court earlier determined the federal law did not apply to student disciplinary records, because “education records” only relate to “academic performance, financial aid or scholastic probation.” The university appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.


In the most recent decision, the federal court reasoned the release of such student information would violate a federal privacy law—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, sometimes referred to as FERPA or the Buckley Amendment.


The Buckley Amendment prevents universities from releasing student “educational records” without that student’s (or in some cases a parent’s) consent.


Judge George Brown wrote it is “abundantly clear” that the student disciplinary records sought in this case are protected by the federal privacy law.


This decision appears to conflict with a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court last July that The Miami Student, the student newspaper at Miami University, was entitled to its request for information about student disciplinary proceedings and records.


After the Ohio Supreme Court decision, The Chronicle of Higher Education sought the release of student disciplinary records from Miami University and Ohio State University.


The Department of Education then filed a lawsuit against the universities in federal court, saying that the release of such information by the universities violates federal privacy law.


The universities appear caught in a bit of a catch-22 because the Department of Education and the Ohio Supreme Court interpret the federal privacy law differently. The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the open records request last July, while the Department of Education says the information about student disciplinary records should remain sealed.


Scott Jaschik, deputy managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, told the First Amendment Center that “we are simply looking at how the campus judicial system works. We wanted to examine whether victims of campus crime are satisfied with the process and whether the accused are treated fairly.”


“We are not trying to expand our rights or make new law,” Jaschik said. “We are simply trying to obtain our rights under the Ohio Public Records Act as interpreted by the Ohio Supreme Court.”


He shrugged off the preliminary injunction ruling as “not a big deal, because the judge issued the ruling before he saw our views. The judge granted the temporary relief before we filed our motion to intervene. We are a bit disappointed but not surprised. Once the judge has the time to read our brief and examine our arguments, the outcome hopefully will be different.”


S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, Inc., took a dimmer view of the judge’s initial ruling. He told the FAC: “It doesn’t look too good. The injunction indicates that under the judge’s interpretation of the federal privacy law, the Department of Education will likely prevail on the merits.”


Marc Mezibov, the attorney representing The Chronicle, told the FAC: “There are a lot of questions as to whether the Department of Education can even bring this lawsuit.”


“First of all, there is a question as to whether FERPA allows the Department of Education to seek injunctive relief preventing participating schools from releasing student disciplinary records,” he said.


“Secondly, the Department of Education was aware of the Ohio Supreme Court action, could have intervened and failed to do so. The Department of Education sat on the sidelines and is now complaining about it.”


Commentary
Privacy not at stake in campus-crime records — safety is

Related Stories
Press advocates decry move to seal student disciplinary records 1.28.98
Victory for Student Newspapers and Open Records 7.10.97