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Second privacy case over education records reaches Supreme Court

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Feb 5, 2002    

Second privacy case over education records reaches Supreme Court

  • The high court agreed to hear a case arising after a student sued a private university for denying his request for an affidavit attesting to his moral character.

The Supreme Court justices agreed on Jan. 11 to hear a second case this term involving an individual’s right to sue to enforce a federal privacy statute over education records.

The first case, Owasso Public Schools v. Falvo, involved a mother who claimed the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act forbade the reading aloud of her son’s grades in class during peer grading. The justices heard oral arguments in that case Nov. 27.

The current case, John Doe v. Gonzaga University, involves a student who sued a private university because he said it violated provisions in FERPA.

In Gonzaga, staff members at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., investigated allegations of sexual assault by a student, known in court papers as “John Doe,” who had requested from the university a moral character affidavit required to receive certification to teach. Although the alleged victim made no formal complaint against the student and later even denied the allegations, the university refused to provide the affidavit based on those allegations.

During the investigations, at least one university employee spoke about the allegations of student’s alleged sexual misconduct and referred to him by name several times to an investigator from the state agency which certifies teachers. Based on this release of information, the student argued the university violated FERPA for disclosing personally identifiable information about him.

The two cases mark the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify the law, specifically as it regards what constitutes an improper release of an education record.

FERPA gives the U.S. Department of Education discretion to withhold federal funding from schools if they disclose personally identifiable information from student records. Congress created FERPA to allow students and their parents access to school records while barring the release of private information to anyone else.

The justices limited review in the Gonzaga case to the question of whether Section 1983 civil rights claim may be raised against a private university for violating the provisions of FERPA.

Section 1983 is generally used to vindicate rights under the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws. It provides a remedy for violation of statutory or constitutional rights by a government agent who acts under some legal authority. Although originally created to protect civil rights or equal protection claims, it has been recognized by the Supreme Court to remedy other claims as well.

The student in the Gonzaga case sued the university in June 1994. He sought to recover damages from the university for defamation, negligence and breach of educational contract, along with the 1983 civil rights and FERPA claims. A trial court ruled in the student’s favor and awarded him attorney fees and costs.

The university appealed to Washington’s Court of Appeals, which reversed the negligence, invasion of privacy, breach of contract and Section 1983 civil rights claims. It remanded the defamation claim back to the trial court, where a jury returned a verdict in the student’s favor, awarding him nearly $1.2 million.

The student appealed the appellate court decision. The Washington Supreme Court held on May 31 that FERPA created rights that were enforceable under Section 1983. The court also found that evidence supported findings that the university invaded the student’s privacy.

The court denied the university’s request to rehear the case, so the university appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments will be heard later this term.

(John Doe v. Gonzaga University) MM

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