National education reporter questions claim by OSU, OU that FERPA prohibits release of campus parking ticket data

Claims by two Oklahoma universities that releasing campus parking ticket data would violate student privacy laws were questioned by a top education reporter at a recent national conference.

Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma last spring both refused requests to release parking ticket data. OSU alone issued more than 18,000 tickets from Aug. 1, 2009, to April 9, 2010,
The Daily O'Collegian reported.

Officials for OSU and OU say releasing names of ticket recipients would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal statute passed to protect specific student records, such as grades.

“I don’t see how that argument could ever stand up,” said Kathryn Masterson, a reporter for
The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Masterson made her comments during a panel discussion on higher education at the Investigative Reporters and Editors national conference in June. More than 800 journalists attended.

“My question might be why? Are they pulling in more money from parking tickets?” Masterson asked.

The universities made the argument in response to
a request by a student journalist at Oklahoma State University.

Universities that use FERPA to deny access to campus parking ticket information were called “obstructionist” by the Student Press Law Center.

FERPA is one of the most widely used --- and abused --- excuses for universities seeking to withhold records that would otherwise be public under state sunshine laws. Courts have repeatedly struck down such broad interpretations.

“And yet colleges persist in defining any piece of paper in their possession as an ‘educational record’ when nondisclosure suits their purposes,” the SPLC said in a press release last May.

Universities have even used FERPA to refuse public access to college athletic departments’ airplane passenger manifests and complimentary ticket lists, a 2009 report by
The Columbus Dispatch showed. The newspaper also showed that FERPA has been used to block parents from getting life-saving information about their own children’s medical conditions.

In another case, a Wisconsin university provided an “almost completely erased” tape recording of a university committee meeting to a campus newspaper. The university argued the voices of students at the public meeting are shielded by FERPA, the SPLC reported.

Northwestern Oklahoma State University's claim in June that FERPA prohibits it from disclosing which students receive scholarships funded by Alva's sales taxes is another example of why the statute is "broken," said the SPLC executive director.

Former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley of New York, the primary FERPA author, has said the law “needs to be revamped” because of abuses by colleges and universities.

Ryan McNeill
Computer-Assisted Reporting Editor
Dallas Morning News

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.