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Editorial: FERPA Hurts Student Media, University It is Meant to ‘Protect’

In recent years, CCSU has had a number of public relations crises, perhaps none more shocking than recent allegations that former track coach, George Kawecki, forced a Kenyan athlete to drink blood.

As with every incident involving a student, this has a paper trail. The student who filed these allegations came through several university offices, including the Office of Diversity and Equity, the Ombudsperson, and the athletics department, all of which keep detailed records surrounding each student who comes into their office. Perhaps the most important thing about this paper trail is that all of those files are public information.

All university offices that were contacted in an attempt to uncover these records cited the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act as the reason behind keeping them a secret.

Unfortunately, this is a common trend on college campuses. University officials misuse FERPA on a consistent basis, injuring both press freedom and administrative transparency.

Also known as the “Buckley Amendment,” FERPA was passed in 1974 and has not been amended since. The act regulates educational agencies receiving federal funding to ensure they provide students with adequate access to their education records, an opportunity to have those records amended and some control over the disclosure of information contained within academic records to third parties.

However, many colleges have prohibited student press and concerned citizens from gaining access to police records, public complaints, and basic directory information by extending the meaning of “educational records.” FERPA’s ambiguous language has left room for college administrators to hide public information in its dark corners.

“There is a reason that Ohio and all 49 other states have enacted broad statutes that declare all government records, including those kept by schools, open for public inspection with limited exceptions: because there is a compelling public interest in honest and efficient government, which can be served only if the public can independently verify how agencies are performing,” attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, wrote in a letter to Ohio Senator Brown and Ohio Attorney General Cordray on June 10, 2009.

Not only does this administrative stonewalling provide a logistical nightmare for student journalists, but it also thwarts our capabilities of providing accurate, unbiased information to readers.

The university has a responsibility to its students and its community to provide transparency on matters that concern the campus as a whole. Hiding behind obscure, 35-year-old federal act is unacceptable. Attempting to lawfully obtain accurate, newsworthy information from the university is becoming increasingly difficult, thus causing the campus community to exist in an even deeper state of suspicion about the moral fortitude of the university.

The misuse of FERPA to stonewall the student media could be a creative way to protect questionable, even incriminating, actions that take place within university administration, or simply the product of a misinformed administration.

FERPA is an otherwise necessary and admirable law, but its consistent and exponentially severe misuse not only threatens the work and vitality of student media, but the reputation of the university itself.