OU President Boren orders parking tickets made public

The University of Oklahoma reversed course on public access to school-issued parking tickets this afternoon just hours after the student newspaper joined a lawsuit seeking access to the records. For more than four years, OU officials had denied access to the parking tickets issued to students, calling them confidential education records under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Joey Stipek, an OU student and member of FOI Oklahoma, filed his lawsuit in May 2013. The FOI Oklahoma Inc. board of directors awarded him a $2,000 grant in September to support the lawsuit.

On Wednesday, The Oklahoma Daily published a front-page editorial announcing it was joining Stipek's lawsuit. The newspaper's editorial board said it hoped the lawsuit would "serve as a precedent for colleges and universities where administrators are misinterpreting an important federal law which, in turn, keeps information from the public."

Then at 3:30 p.m. today, OU President David Boren issued a statement announcing that he believes the parking ticket records should be available to the public and the media:

Today, I have ordered that information regarding OU parking tickets should be available to the public and the media. While there are differing interpretations of the federal law, I have personally and carefully considered the issue, and I believe that this action does not violate the intent of the federal privacy law. In my opinion, the records in question are traffic violation records, and are not the kind of sensitive student records, which are covered by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. I have directed the General Counsel’s Office and other relevant university officials to take the appropriate steps to implement this decision. I have no reason to believe that there has been any impropriety in the parking ticket program, but I believe that the public has a right to know how it has been implemented.

Note that Boren said the parking tickets are traffic violations records and "not the kind of sensitive student records" deemed confidential by FERPA.

Why did it take Boren so long to come to that conclusion? A number of legal analyists came to the same conclusion years ago.

In 2010, The Oklahoman criticized OU and OSU for claiming FERPA protects parking tickets issued to students. “The federal law was designed to protect students’ academic records, not such things as tickets issued to students for parking in the faculty lot,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

That came after a student in my reporting course wrote an article for The Daily O'Collegian in which legal experts criticized the two universities for refusing to release the information.

That criticism was based in part on a 1997 Maryland appellate court ruling that parking tickets were public under that state's open records law because committing a parking violation has nothing to do with a student’s education. A North Carolina court came to the same conclusion in 2011.

And in May, a federal judge refused to dismiss Stipek's lawsuit, saying it was “plausible that parking citations and vehicle registrations are not educational records as defined by FERPA, and therefore, are subject to the (Oklahoma Open Records Act).”

So, perhaps Boren finally read the writing on the wall and decided not to add to the attorney fees OU would have to pay Stipek. And perhaps he wanted to avoid another court ruling that wouldn't sit well with other university presidents.

Which bring up this question: Will President Burns Hargis come to the same conclusion as Boren if OSU's parking tickets are again requested?

If Hargis doesn't, Stipek's attorneys -- Nicholas Harrison, an OU alumnus based in Washington D.C., and Kevin Taylor, based in Oklahoma City -- have some experience in this area.

Joey Senat, Ph.D. Associate Professor OSU School of Media and 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.