SPJ supports Chicago Tribune in freedom of information case
INDIANAPOLIS–The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief challenging the University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ attempt to conceal records involving preferential treatment of well-connected applicants to the state university system.
The brief was filed Friday in support of the Chicago Tribune Company after the Board of Trustees appealed a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois requiring disclosure of the material. The University maintains that the records are protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which was established to shield student academic records from public view for privacy reasons. However, since it was enacted, the law has been widely abused to shield information about everything from disciplinary proceedings for serious crimes to parking tickets.
SPJ and the other amici maintain that the intent of FERPA is clear, both in the word of the law and in subsequent court rulings: to provide parents and students access to the records schools use in making academic decisions about students, and to prevent school disclosure policies that permit systematic and indiscriminate releases of information that relate to a student’s personal educational information. Senator James Buckley, primary author of FERPA, has publicly decried schools’ widespread misapplication of the statute.
SPJ joined the amicus brief, which was drafted by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center in support of the Chicago Tribune Co., urging the appeals court to uphold the lower court’s ruling that FERPA does not protect the secretive practices of the University system. Not only is the withheld information well beyond the boundaries of personal academic information, the brief argues, but it directly concerns students other than those whose records are being hidden from the public.
The brief further argues that the information sought by the Tribune is only tangentially related to the students’ education, a classification not protected by FERPA. Furthermore, the brief states, the University’s alleged practice of applying preferential admissions treatment amounts to fraudulent use of taxpayer dollars and harm done to students who seek admission to the school based on personal merit and not personal connections.
As a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases. Most recently, SPJ joined a brief supporting the Washington City Paper in a SLAPP suit by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.