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Federal privacy act doesn't bar release of admission records

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  1. Freedom of Information
A federal judge ruled this week that the U.S. Family Education Rights and Privacy Act does not bar the University…

A federal judge ruled this week that the U.S. Family Education Rights and Privacy Act does not bar the University of Illinois from releasing to the Chicago Tribune admission records of applicants who appeared on a list of well-connected students.

Beginning in May 2009, the Tribune published a collection of articles titled "Clout goes to College," which detailed their investigation of admission practices at the University of Illinois. The series focused on a list of applicants, which included relatives of influential individuals, who appeared to have received preferential treatment in the admission process. The Tribune submitted a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act seeking: the names and addresses of each listed applicant's parents; the identity of people who made a request or became involved in such applicants' applications; records about the identity of University of Illinois officials to whom the request was made; names of University officials to whom the request was forwarded; and any documents that showed changes in an applicant's status as a result of the request.

The university denied the request, claiming it was covered under Illinois FOIA Exemption 7, which protects the release of documents that are "specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or State law or rules and regulations adopted under federal or State law." The university said it believed the FERPA prohibited the release of such requested documents because it states: "[N]o funds shall be made available under any applicable program to any educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release of education records (or personally identifiable information contained therein . . .) of students without the written consent of their parents to any individual, agency, or organization."

The Tribune filed suit on Jan. 27. Although the university claimed other state FOIA exemptions would likely apply, the court only ruled on whether FERPA bars the release of the requested documents.

U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall said the university was mistaken in relying on FERPA because it "does not specifically prohibit Illinois from doing anything, so the University may not use the federal law as authority to withhold the records." The court stated this was a narrow opinion, leaving the university with the option to explore other possible exceptions.

The university said it views the ruling as "disappointing," because "it represents a setback for the privacy rights of young adults applying for admission to public universities in Illinois and nationwide." The university said it is still reviewing the decision "before deciding upon next steps."

Historically, universities have interpreted FERPA as grounds for denying records requests for educational records. If this new ruling becomes the standard, FERPA will be less daunting to journalists because there will no longer be a categorical blockade to the information, said Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center. LoMonte said that, even if FERPA disappeared, the media would still have to overcome state privacy laws, which require a balancing of the public's right to know and privacy rights of individuals, prior to obtaining personal student information.