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Documents related to the 2007 sexual assault arrests of two University of Iowa football players will remain private, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision Friday.
The high court found that a provision of the Iowa Open Records Act incorporates the records disclosure restrictions found in the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents an educational agency or institution from receiving federal funds if it "has a policy or practice of permitting the release of education records" of students without written consent.
As a result, it reversed an August 2009 order by a lower court that would have granted the Iowa City Press-Citizen access to reports of the alleged sexual assaults, University correspondence relating to any such incidents, as well as other documents.
In October 2007, two University of Iowa football players allegedly sexually assaulted another student in a campus dorm. Following a criminal investigation, one player was convicted on a charge of assault with intent to inflict serious injury and the other on a charge of simple assault. After reports of the incident surfaced, Iowa City Press-Citizen filed a records request, to which the university responded by releasing 18 pages of documents. Displeased with the university's response, the Press-Citizen sued the university.
The university withheld the sexual assault-related records based on FERPA, but when the lower court granted access to the Press-Citizen, the university released about 950 pages of documents to the news outlet but contested the release of additional requested documents.
Following the private viewing of the documents, the lower court divided the documents into five categories and gave the university 30 days to disclose records in two categories: documents "not protected as confidential and ... subject to disclosure ... without redaction" and documents "subject to disclosure ... with appropriate redactions made to remove student-identifying information including students' names, parents' names, addresses including E-mail addresses of students, dormitory and room numbers."
In its appeal to the high court, the university argued that state law "cannot authorize disclosure where federal law requires confidentiality."
“As [the university] understands the law, ‘education records’ with ‘personally identifiable information’ cannot be released," the high court stated."The University contends that if the Press-Citizen or the student community would know the student being discussed in the education record, the record cannot be divulged — even in redacted form — under FERPA.”
The newspaper maintained that FERPA is merely a funding statute that cannot override the disclosure mandates of the Iowa Open Records Act.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with five other organizations, submitted a friends-of-the-court brief, urging the high court to affirm the lower court’s ruling. According to the brief, the Iowa Open Records Act, which places the highest priority on public access and government accountability, requires disclosure of law enforcement and crime information held by the university without limitation by FERPA.
However, the high court ultimately sided with the university based on the court's finding that the operation of a provision of the Open Records Act may be suspended "if the provision would cause the denial of federal funds to a state agency."
University of Iowa Spokesman Tom Moore said the university hopes this will reassure students that the university "will appropriately protect their privacy."
"The university is pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with our position regarding the importance of protecting the privacy of our students," he said.
The Press-Citizen's counsel could not be reached for comment.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· FERPA, HIPAA and DPPA: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)