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Reporters Committee files brief over privacy "civil rights" claim

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court today, arguing that allowing civil rights suits over disclosures of records will have a harmful effect on the public’s right to know how its government and other institutions work.

A student, known in court papers as John Doe, sued Gonzaga University for what he felt were violations of the Family Educational Records and Privacy Act (“FERPA”). He had learned that information regarding allegations of sexual misconduct was shared among university employees and an investigator with the state agency responsible for teacher certification, which led the university to deny him an affidavit of good moral character, a requirement to be certified as a teacher in the state. University employees pursued investigations into the allegations even though the alleged victim refused to bring formal charges and later denied the allegations. At least one employee spoke to an outside state agency about the allegations, referring to the student by name.

FERPA does not provide a remedy that would allow an individual to sue an educational institution for violation of its provisions, but Doe sued under the federal civil rights statute that allows suits for official violations of constitutional and statutory rights. The amicus brief argues that such a claim, commonly called a “Section 1983” claim, can only be used to protect those interests that rise to the level of “right” and the privacy interests addressed by FERPA do not rise to that level.

The journalism and public access groups argued that if such claims are allowed, it will be more difficult for journalists to get information from agencies, especially from schools and universities that are already hesitant to release anything. Government agencies and educational institutions would stop releasing important records for fear of massive civil rights litigation. For example, schools are already reluctant to release campus crime reports, even with evidence showing that the release of these reports would help potential victims avoid crimes committed against them.

Oral arguments in the case, Gonzaga University v. Doe, are scheduled for April 24.

The brief, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, was joined by The Student Press Law Center, Society of Professional Journalists, and Security On Campus, Inc. It is available at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20020222gonzaga.pdf