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High court orders universities to release admissions records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information         Jul 2, 2002    

High court orders universities to release admissions records

  • Wisconsin’s highest court held that the University of Wisconsin school system must release all application records with personally identifiable information redacted, reversing a state appellate court decision that said no information could be released.

The state Supreme Court held that a federal privacy law over education records, the state’s public policy in open records, and a statutory mandate to redact personal information did not prohibit the University of Wisconsin school systems from disclosing parts of student application records after personal identifiers were redacted.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, urging the court to rule in favor of J. Marshall Osborn, who sought records to study admissions practices including affirmative action policies.

Justice N. Patrick Crooks, who wrote the court’s opinion, found that Osborn was not requesting personally identifiable information and thus the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protections for education records did not apply since it does not prohibit the release of records that do not contain personally identifiable information.

“Osborn is not requesting the student’s name, the name of the student’s parent or other family member, the address of the student or student’s family, or a personal identifier such as the student’s Social Security number,” Crooks wrote.

The court would not address whether the application records of students who did not enroll in the school were protected since it found that FERPA generally does not prohibit the disclosure of any documents.

The court also held that Wisconsin’s public policy favors openness of records and that public access should be denied only in exceptional cases. The court opted for openness, saying disclosing the data from student application records would permit the research of a university’s admissions practices and policies and keep the universities accountable for their actions.

The court further rejected the university’s argument that redaction would create a new record, which is not required under the state’s open records laws. The court held that the university was required to comply with the statutory duty to delete or redact information that is not subject to disclosure.

The case arose in 1998 when Osborn and the Center for Equal Opportunity made several open records requests to the university for records of applicants to its campuses, including the law school and medical school, and students who had not enrolled in the university. The records were to be used to analyze and compare the data regarding admissions policies and practices of public institutions. Osborn’s request included high school grade point averages, SAT scores, race, socioeconomic background and class rank.

The university complied partially, providing several hundred pages of documents, but denied the requests for the most part. Osborn sued to compel disclosure.

(Osborn v. Board of Regents; Media counsel: Petitioners: Daniel Kelly, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C., Milwaukee, Wisc.) MM

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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