The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today in Gonzaga University v. Doe, which found that a federal law that limits schools’ release of information cannot be used as the basis for civil rights suits.
The Reporters Committee, joined by The Student Press Law Center, Society of Professional Journalists, and Security On Campus, Inc., had asked the court to find that laws recognizing information privacy interests do not create the type of “rights” that can be enforced under federal civil rights law. In an opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court decided that any statute must explicitly create a right in order for it to be enforceable through a Section 1983 civil rights action.
If the court had found that the educational record law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), could be enforced by individuals in civil rights cases, schools across the country could have felt compelled to restrict access to a broad range of information — as they indeed have been doing in the last few years — out of fear of widespread civil rights litigation every time information on a student reaches the public.
“The Reporters Committee believes strongly in defending civil rights,” said Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “However, extending civil rights protection to a law that governs the release of information would have limited the ability of reporters, particularly student reporters, to cover stories of major importance, particularly when a crime has been committed on a campus.”
The law that allows individuals to sue states over actions that violate their constitutional and statutory rights, commonly called Section 1983, was a post-Civil War enactment designed to protect African Americans from government officials who would deprive them of their civil rights. It is the primary vehicle for enforcing civil rights through the courts. In recent years, plaintiffs have sought to extent that provision to cover a wider range of interests, such as disclosure of grades by a teacher or discussion of student disciplinary actions by school administrators.