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Education privacy law cannot be enforced through civil rights suits

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    NMU         U.S.

    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Jun 20, 2002    

Education privacy law cannot be enforced through civil rights suits

  • The Supreme Court held that FERPA does not create personal rights that can be enforced under section 1983.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a Washington state supreme court decision and held June 20 that a student may not sue a university under a civil rights statute to enforce provisions of an education privacy act.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, prohibits educational agencies and institutions from having a “policy or practice” of disclosing information contained in a student’s educational record. Under the law, the government can deny funding to institutions that allow such release.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, delivering the opinion of the court, wrote that FERPA’s nondisclosure provisions contain no rights-creating language, but instead create an aggregate benefit. The Court held that if Congress wished to create new rights enforceable under section 1983, it must do so in clear and unambiguous language.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by the Society of Professional Journalists and Security on Campus, wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that FERPA should not be enforceable by section 1983 and noting that allowing such suits over information disclosure would prompt states to restrict access to government-held information out of fear of a wave of civil rights litigation.

Section 1983 was part of a series of civil rights statutes created after the Civil War to allow African-Americans to sue when their constitutional rights were violated by local and state officials. It was expanded in the 1980s to include the enforcement of statutory rights as well.

In its decision, the Court reinforced the idea that section 1983 “provides a remedy only for the deprivation of ‘rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws’ of the United States.” Since FERPA did not contain the requisite rights-creating language, it could not be enforced by section 1983.

The Court also concluded that FERPA was not intended to be judicially enforced because private suits would result in multiple interpretations of the act, which was something FERPA explicitly attempted to avoid. Congress provided for procedures for individuals who felt FERPA was violated by expressly authorizing the Secretary of Education to “deal with violations” of the Act and requiring the Secretary to establish a review board to adjudicate violations. By not allowing judicial enforcement, it ensured the centralized enforcement of FERPA’s provisions, which was something Congress had intended since the inception of the of the privacy law, according to the court.

Rehnquist noted that the Court has generally refused to allow section 1983 suits, especially where the specific act confers no specific, individually enforceable right, where there are no grounds for private enforcement and when the law’s provisions focus on “aggregate services” by the state rather than the needs of a particular individual.

Justices Stephen Breyer and David H. Souter concurred in the decision, adding that FERPA’s key language was broad and non-specific, leaving schools unsure of what kinds of information they can and cannot reveal. They disagreed with Rehnquist, however, that a broad presumption against recognizing a right exists unless it is created unambiguously in the statute, saying instead that the intended remedy must be determined after considering all circumstances.

Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented in the decision. The language of FERPA, the dissenters argued, creates an implied cause of action that is enforceable by section 1983. The Court’s opinion distinguishes between rights enforceable by 1983 and those that are not, creating an unintended hierarchy of rights, Stevens wrote.

Ru Paster, known in court papers as John Doe, is a former undergraduate in the School of Education at Gonzaga University, a private university in Spokane, Washington. He planned to graduate and teach at a Washington public elementary school. Washington at the time required all of its new teachers to obtain an affidavit of good moral character from a dean of their graduation college or university. In October 1993, Roberta League, the “teacher certification specialist” at Gonzaga, overheard one student tell another student that Paster engaged in acts of sexual misconduct against a female undergraduate. League launched an investigation and contacted the state agency responsible for teacher certification, identifying Paster by name and discussing the allegations against him. It wasn’t until March 1994, when he was told by League and others that he would not receive the affidavit required to become a Washington schoolteacher, that Paster learned of the investigation and the allegations were disclosed.

Paster sued Gonzaga and League in state court on a number of theories, including libel and violation of FERPA for the release of personal information. Doe argued that a federal right is conferred upon any student enrolled at an educational agency or institution receiving federal funds and those rights may be enforced in suits for damages through section 1983.

A jury found the university and League liable and awarded Doe almost $1.2 million, including $450,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for the FERPA claim.

The Washington Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that FERPA does not create individual rights and cannot be enforced under section 1983. But the Washington Supreme Court reinstated the lower court decision and reversed the Court of Appeals, arguing that the non-disclosure provision gives rise to a federal right enforceable under section 1983.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 24.

(Gonzaga University v. Doe) MM

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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