Records related to a secret admission process at the University of Illinois that favored applicants with ties to large donors and the politically connected cannot be considered confidential student education records exempt from public release, according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed today in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“Like the fabled boy who cried ‘wolf,’ this case presents the increasingly familiar tale of a public university that, embarrassed by its own wrongdoing, cries ‘student privacy’ in an attempt to frustrate public disclosure of information reflecting unflatteringly on the conduct of the university’s administrators,” it argues. The brief was filed in conjunction with the Student Press Law Center and 21 media organizations.
The case of Chicago Tribune Co. v. University of Illinois Board of Trustees began in 2009 with “Clout Goes to College,” a series in the Tribune uncovering a secret practice at the public university that granted admission to students with financial, political and other clout who otherwise might not have been invited to matriculate. Following the series, the state launched an investigation that determined the so-called “Category I” students were granted preferential admission by the university chancellor.
The Tribune filed a state open records request with the university asking for records involving Category I admissions, including the names of student sponsors and parents, and who they spoke to at the university. Despite no request for regular application materials, such as essays and transcripts, maintained by the university, the request was denied outright because, university officials maintained, the records were protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA.
“Court after court has rejected colleges’ and universities’ overbroad claims that any mention of a student in any document must be protected by FERPA,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish said. “Such assertions defy common sense and twist the good intentions of the law beyond reason. Citing FERPA under the guise of protecting students to hide embarrassing revelations about a university or its administration is legally flawed and runs counter to the principles of open government.”
The complete brief, including a list of fellow signers, can be found here.
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow on Twitter @rcfp.