Student journalist sues OU for access to parking ticket information
The University of Oklahoma's claim that parking tickets issued to students are private educational records is being challenged in court by a former online editor for The Oklahoma Daily.
Joey Stipek is asking a Cleveland County judge to order OU officials to release all parking citations issued by the university.
Stipek's lawsuit, filed Friday, stems from OU's refusal to release electronic copies of parking citations issued to students in the spring 2012 semester. OU's open records officer, Rachel McCombs, claimed the information is confidential under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, according to Stipek's lawsuit.
OU and Oklahoma State University officials have made that claim for years even though courts in other states have ruled otherwise.
In 1998, for example, the Maryland Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that FERPA "was not intended to preclude the release of any record simply because the record contained the name of a student." (Kirwan v. The Diamondback, 721 A.2d 196, 27 Media L. Rep. 1399 (Md. Ct. App. 1998))
The court reasoned:
The federal statute was obviously intended to keep private those aspects of a student's educational life that relate to academic matters or status as a student.
Nevertheless, in addition to protecting the privacy of students, Congress intended to prevent educational institutions from operating in secrecy.
Prohibiting disclosure of any document containing a student's name would allow universities to operate in secret, which would be contrary to one of the policies behind the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Universities could refuse to release information about criminal activity on campus if students were involved, claiming that this information constituted education records, thus keeping very important information from other students, their parents, public officials, and the public.
We hold that "education records" within the meaning of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act do not include records of parking tickets or correspondence between the NCAA and the University regarding a student-athlete accepting a loan to pay parking tickets.
The university's student newspaper had sought the records after learning that a basketball player had nearly 300 parking violations, many for parking in handicapped spaces, and more than $8,000 in unpaid parking fines.
In 2011, a North Carolina judge ruled that parking tickets issued to UNC athletes "are not education records protected by FERPA."
The "remote possibility" that repeated parking violations would result in disciplinary action "does not constitute a sufficient 'threat' to cloak every student with invisibility about the number of parking tickets he or she receives," the judge said.
(Similarly, the judge ruled that student phone numbers on UNC coaches' cell phone bills were public records, saying: "FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view while enrolled at UNC. The telephone number is not part of the education record protected by FERPA.")
The N.C. judge's ruling was another example of courts telling universities that "FERPA is not to be applied in an absurd way to conceal information that is not educational," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
LoMonte recently said OSU officials shouldn't just ignore those court rulings and should stop "relying on this unsustainable interpretation of FERPA that is inconsistent with the way other people read it and undermines the public interest."
If parking tickets are indeed educational records, LoMonte told The Daily O'Collegian, then the university is violating FERPA by placing them on windshields in public view.
"They certainly wouldn't take your report card and stick it under your windshield wiper and leave it on public display for anyone to see," LoMonte said.
Stipek had sought OU's parking tickets to determine if preferential treatment had been given to anyone, especially athletes.
After being denied access, Stipek asked for all non-student parking citations. But the university replied that it didn't have the technological capability to redact student information from the database, according to his petition.
Stipek's lawsuit was filed against McCombs and OU President David Boren. Stipek's attorney is Nicholas Harrison, who received FOI Oklahoma's 2012 Ben Blackstock Award because of his reporting for The Oklahoma Daily as a University of Oklahoma law school student.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
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.