FERPA Author: Universities Play Games with Law
October 11, 2011
The University of Alabama has blocked the release of Student Government Association records involving investigations into irregularities in the selection process for a first-year honors program. The university claims that under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), these are "educational" records shielded from public disclosure. Not so, says the law's author, former U.S. Senator and Federal Circuit Court Judge James Buckley, in an interview with the student newspaper, The Crimson White.
"That does not sound like an educational record to me ... it's what the kids do outside of the classroom," noted Buckley, who served in the Senate from 1971 to 1977. "One problem is this law was passed over 40 years ago, and all kinds of interpretations were added over time," he told the Crimson White. "I do know college administrations have played a lot of games with it. There's a lot of stonewalling going on."
The Crimson White filed open records requests under Alabama state law for "any written testimony provided by members of the Student Government Association Senate or SGA staff detailing irregularities that occurred in the First Year Council selections process." The requests were referred to a university spokesperson who denied them, claiming that the records appeared to apply to only one student, and were thus shielded by FERPA.
FIRE has agreed with Senator Buckley's comments on FERPA before. FERPA was written to protect students' academic records from public scrutiny and publication. It was not intended to provide universities with a way to draw a curtain over all campus activity, especially the activity of student governments, which often act as official agents of their colleges. There are very important reasons for allowing public access to student government records—most importantly, it's the law!