NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MONTANA · Freedom of Information · May 9, 2007
Newspaper can see student discipline records
May 9, 2007 · The Montana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a federal law that makes certain student information confidential does not prevent the public release of redacted student disciplinary records.
The ruling overturned a lower court decision in favor of a local school board that blocked the release of disciplinary actions taken against two high school students involved in a BB gun shooting.
The Cut Bank (Mont.) Pioneer Press initiated the case after Cut Bank Public Schools trustees denied the paper’s request to see the disciplinary actions taken against the students. The trustees handed out the punishment in a closed session, but refused to disclose what action was taken because they said the students’ privacy interests trumped the public’s right to know.
The paper argued the public had the right to know how officials are dealing with a violent situation and what type of punishment such actions receive. The paper also argued that it never requested the names of the students and that it only wanted to know the punishment.
The lower court ruled in favor of the school district, saying the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act restricted the release of the disciplinary records. The high court disagreed.
“The discipline imposed by the board on students of the school, particularly students involved in potentially injurious actions, is a matter of public concern,” the Supreme Court ruled. “The board’s assertion that unidentified students have privacy interest in the disciplinary measures imposed upon them which would prohibit a general report to the public about the board’s action in the matter is unpersuasive.”
The high court also relied on last year’s decision in the case Fleenor v. Darby School District, saying the paper had the right to the information. In that decision, the court ruled that a citizen who could not show direct harm from secret school board meetings to hire a new superintendent had no grounds to sue under the open meetings law.
“Unlike the request in Fleenor, Pioneer asserted a personal interest in the records at issue, and alleged an injury resulting from the denial of those records,” the court ruled. “The interest was personal to Pioneer because the records were necessary for Pioneer’s work.”
The Associated Press, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Montana Broadcasters Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Cut Bank newspaper.
(Board of Trustees, Cut Bank Public Schools v. Cut Bank Pioneer Press, Media Counsel: Peter Michael Meloy and Robin A. Meguire, Meloy Trieweiler, Helena, Mont.) — NC