Legal issues

Federal privacy law should be deemed unconstitutional (essay)

We’ve known for a long time that the federal student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), is disastrous for public accountability. Now we know that it’s almost certainly unconstitutional as well.

The threat of financial ruin that theoretically accompanies a FERPA violation – theoretically, because in the 38-year history of the statute, no one has ever been penalized for violating it – causes schools and colleges to irrationally withhold information from the public on the grounds of “educational privacy.” Even if the information is neither educational nor private.

Colleges have invoked FERPA to withhold records as benign and non-confidential as lists of athletes on scholarship and tape recordings of Student Senate meetings. And FERPA has become the default excuse to conceal wrongdoing by coaches, boosters or athletic-department tutors.

But the end of FERPA’s stranglehold on public records is in sight.

In National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (the “Obamacare” ruling), the Supreme Court struck down a federal statute that conditioned federal financial subsidies – in that case, Medicaid funding – on complying with Congressionally mandated conditions.

The Court’s primary opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, traced the history of challenges to Congress’s authority to dictate policy through the Spending Clause in Art. 1, Sec. 8 of the Constitution.

Conditions attached to federal spending have been upheld as constitutional, the chief justice wrote, when they amount to “relatively mild encouragement,” such as the requirement to increase the drinking age to 21 as a condition of receiving federal highway aid.

But in this case, Roberts wrote, the coercive bargain – to greatly expand the rolls of Medicaid-eligible patients or forfeit every dollar of federal Medicaid funding – simply went too far: “[T]he financial ‘inducement’ Congress has chosen is much more than ‘relatively mild encouragement’ — it is a gun to the head.”

Mr. Chief Justice, meet FERPA.

The 1974 federal privacy statute, which requires all schools and colleges receiving federal money to enforce policies safeguarding the confidentiality of students’ “education records,” carries a (theoretical) wallop that is comparably knee-buckling to Obamacare’s: Violators forfeit their eligibility for federal education funding.

The federal government contributes 10.8 percent of the cost of K-12 public education in America. While the percentage of direct support is less at the postsecondary level, ineligibility for federal funding includes life-sustaining Pell Grants, a $35 billion-a-year program.

Because the Department of Education knows that withdrawing federal money would amount to burning the proverbial village to save it, the DOE has never come close to imposing the “fiscal death penalty” on a FERPA violator. In fact, it has enacted regulations to make certain that no school will ever be de-funded simply for honoring a public records request.
If documents are released in violation of FERPA, the DOE issues a “compliance plan.” Only if the department determines that the school will not voluntarily comply can financial penalties be imposed. (The Supreme Court has ruled that families aggrieved by the release of their records cannot sue under FERPA, so DOE sanctions are the only penalty.)

Congress enacted FERPA with good intentions: to keep misleading records of aptitude tests or disciplinary scrapes from coming back to haunt young people. FERPA entitles families to see these records on demand, to challenge their accuracy, and to insert clarifying material. And it makes those same records confidential for everyone but the family.

But FERPA went awry when it became the catch-all excuse for every school or college that finds disclosure inconvenient or embarrassing.

The default assumption under the law of every state and of the federal government is that individuals’ interactions with government agencies are a matter of public record and are subject to disclosure. Thus, when a person applies for a construction permit, receives a traffic ticket or incorporates a business, those transactions are transparent – even if the individuals involved would prefer otherwise – so the public can assess how government agencies are performing.

Public records are what enabled reporters from the Los Angeles Times to document massive waste and mismanagement in the L.A. Community College district’s $5.7 billion construction program. They’re what helped Chicago Tribune reporters document the existence of a backdoor admissions system for the underqualified children of VIPs at the University of Illinois, a scandal that helped topple UI’s president and most of its trustees.

Regrettably, school attorneys have become well-practiced at invoking the federal-funding bogeyman – at times in confoundingly frivolous ways – when faced with a demand for information they’d prefer to keep concealed.

In July, the Iowa Supreme Court denied a newspaper’s request to compel production of public records relating to the University of Iowa’s internal investigation of how rape accusations against two Hawkeye football players were handled.

The victim’s family complained that the university dragged its feet in investigating the attack. An independent law-firm investigation confirmed wrongdoing that led to the firing of two university vice presidents.

The players’ names have been in the national news for years; one pleaded guilty to assault and the other was convicted at trial. Yet the Iowa court put their “privacy” interests – in being felons – ahead of the public’s interest in memos and correspondence that could shed light on how Iowa responded to the victim’s complaints.

Because it’s possible to read FERPA to produce such absurd results – a literal reading of the statute makes “education records” absolutely confidential even if everything in them is already widespread public knowledge as a result of the student’s own criminality – it’s time to sweep the statute into the dustbin and start over.

Based on the Court’s June 28 ruling in NFIB, there are seven likely votes to invalidate FERPA. Dissenting Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito used even stronger language than Roberts and his two co-signers in condemning the Medicaid expansion mandate: “If the anticoercion rule does not apply in this case, then there is no such rule.”

The dissenting justices even helpfully pointed out that, after Medicaid, the second-largest federal aid program is education, accounting for 12.8 percent of all federal assistance to states and 6.6 percent of the average state’s total yearly expenditures.

So, do states have a meaningful opportunity to accept or refuse education funding? Let’s ask America’s colleges and universities.

In 2011, the head table of American higher education weighed in behind the University of Illinois in a dispute with the Chicago Tribune over records of its secretive “clout admissions” program.

A federal district court decided that FERPA was no excuse for withholding the documents the Tribune sought. In a ruling that has since been vacated on appeal, the district judge ruled that FERPA is not an outright prohibition on disclosure, since a college can choose to accept or reject federal funding.

In the university’s successful appeal to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, the American Council on Education and nine other education groups filed a supporting brief arguing that FERPA is, to use Justice Roberts’ words, “a gun to the head” of their member institutions.

They noted that 19.1 percent of the University of Illinois’ operating revenues comes from Pell Grants and other federal sources, the loss of which would be crippling if not fatal.

“As a practical matter, [educational] institutions have no real ‘choice’ in the matter as the federal government is the single largest provider of student loans and other student financial assistance for higher education, which funding serves as a central component in each institution’s budget,” the groups argued. “Given the fact that federal education funding comprises such a significant percentage of a school’s total operating revenue, the District Court’s conclusion that schools can simply discontinue receipt of those funds is not grounded in reality.”

Indeed, in its Supreme Court brief in NFIB, the government expressly cited FERPA as a Spending Clause condition analogous to the challenged Medicaid expansion – a condition that, if the Medicaid expansion fell, would be thrown into question.

FERPA is a “dead statute walking.” It relies on a coercive funding threat indistinguishable from that just declared unconstitutional in NFIB. Having acknowledged as much in the Illinois case, colleges and schools cannot retreat from that position when the inevitable constitutional challenge arises.
To be clear, striking down FERPA will not throw open genuinely private records that everyone agrees should be kept confidential. Grades, minor disciplinary scrapes and other non-newsworthy information still may be kept secret, because open-records statutes exclude information that clearly invades personal privacy.

With FERPA off the books, schools and courts will be free to make common-sense judgments as to when privacy has been waived – for instance, when a nationally known athlete admits committing a crime – and secrecy serves no rational purpose.

This balancing test – weighing, case-by-case, personal privacy against the community’s interest in disclosure – is the right way to protect legitimate confidences while giving the public the information essential to evaluating how its schools are being managed.


Frank D. LoMonte is a lawyer and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., that supports greater transparency in schools and colleges.

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Essay: OCR Guidelines on Sexual Assault Hurt Colleges and Students

Dear Colleague,

Actually, let me rephrase that.  

Dear Attorneys Who Are Employed by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights,

There. That's better.  Because despite the fact that you addressed me as a "colleague" in the April 4, 2011 missive that has made my professional life so difficult, a document that has become familiar to me and my (actual) colleagues as the "Dear Colleague Letter,"  you are not my colleague. A colleague is someone I work with. You are a group of mostly nameless, faceless individuals who crafted a 19-page document that at best complicates my work, at worst undermines my judgment and my ability to make good decisions for my institution and my students.

Not that we haven't needed some guidance in this area.  Sexual assault is indeed a difficult and ubiquitous problem in our work. Drunk students are vulnerable to becoming victims. Drunk students are emboldened to become assailants. And I have a lot of drunk students. We all do. Despite our best efforts to provide alcohol-free activities, alcohol education and significant sanctions for alcohol-fueled behavioral problems, there is still no activity on our campuses that can compete with drinking for students' interest and affection. I work for a selective institution whose students are academically pretty strong. It's not as bad on my campus as it seems to be on others. But it's bad, and I have the incident reports to prove it.

A few years ago, the Center for Public Integrity published a report that excoriated that excoriated colleges and universities for their handling of sexual assault cases. It was an absolutely indicting report... unless the reader was, like I am, a student affairs professional who could easily imagine being the one publicly criticized in the report. Yes, I could imagine it. Not that I believed at that point (or since) that I had mismanaged a sexual assault case, but because the ones I had managed were enormously complex, full of truths, lies, reversals, angry parents, hungry lawyers and empowered supporters.  

In each of these, I did my best to navigate the extremely difficult landscape, managing to avoid a public airing of the case by an ill-informed media or a lawsuit brought by a student (victim or accused) who felt wronged in the process. This is not at all to say I'm incredibly skilled. Luck probably plays more a part in this than most of us feel comfortable admitting publicly. I happen to know some of the professionals the CPI report criticizes, and I doubt I am much more competent than any of them. I have just been fortunate not to have been the one in the proverbial hot seat, directing a process that is complicated and flawed, at the precise moment several factors merged to create a public relations and professional disaster.

Please don't interpret my comments to mean that I don't appreciate the Office for Civil Rights' efforts to try to assist me in doing my work. I'm always eager for new perspectives that increase my knowledge and strategies related to sexual misconduct response. In laying out some guidelines for how I should inform my students of our policies, ferry them through the process, and report the outcomes, you have given me and my (real) colleagues some consistent expectations that allow us to keep the issue of sexual misconduct in the forefront of our minds as we design our programs, interventions and support strategies.  

You have, though, gone too far. While the legal experts out there have been commenting on, criticizing and calling for revisions of the Dear Colleague Letter, I've been plugging away here on my campus, trying to do, at the most fundamental level, the work you purport to oversee.  

Let me say this respectfully and with as much clarity as I can: you do not know my work. You do not know what I face every day in responding to a student culture of alcohol-infused hook-ups, where regrettable sex is a daily occurrence. The law has defined sexual misconduct as any activity that takes place with a person who is incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs. That makes sense, until you have to determine what "incapacitation" entails. I'm not much of a drinker myself, but I know that a couple of drinks loosen my tongue enough to say things I might never say without the alcohol. Am I incapacitated? No. But my judgment is impaired.  

In some situations, the student who is the accuser is clearly incapacitated -- practically (or actually) unconscious. In most cases, though, it's the impairment of her judgment -- agreeing to have sex with someone who, the next morning, she will regret having had sex with -- that causes her friends and supporters and other campus employees to tell her she's been sexually assaulted and needs to file a complaint. This process then begins the long journey down the rabbit hole of OCR-specified response that never ends well.  

Let me repeat that, because it haunts me: these things never end well. All students are traumatized to some degree or another. Families are devastated. And the professionals who must coordinate this process are expected to operate with constraints on our judgment and strategies imposed by a group of people who don't understand what we deal with every day, led by someone who has, according to her online bio, never done a job like mine. Assistant Secretary for the Office of Civil Rights Russlynn Ali is an impressive woman, clearly dedicated to both the legal profession and to education. But nothing I have learned about her indicates that she has ever sat in a seat like mine or been in a position like mine, across from a college student who is reporting an alleged assault or a student who is hearing for the first time that he has been accused of one.  

It is unlikely that Ms. Ali has ever sat at desk like mine, on the phone with a parent who cannot believe I allowed his daughter to drink, much less allowed (or not allowed -- always a difficult point to discuss) a "boy" to do the things her account reports. Or a parent who wants to know why I have sent her son home without so much as a hearing, an action we call "interim removal," while we investigate these claims.  

"Because the alleged victim is afraid of seeing him, and the Office for Civil Rights has made it clear that our process must support the alleged victim in this way" is not an answer that satisfies an angry mother who believes that her son (1) has been unjustly accused, (2) has not been given a chance to defend himself (yet), and 3) may find his ability to succeed academically compromised by his absence from classes during this investigation.  Has Ms. Ali ever had a parent, in a rageful voice, point out the inequity of all of this? Because I've experienced that on several occasions as I have tried to do what OCR expects from a "victim-friendly" policy.  

What is my response to that parent? That we are told to lead with belief of the alleged victim over the alleged accuser? Unlike a lawyer (and I suspect this is the crux of our differences), I am responsible for the welfare of all of my students — equally and dispassionately. Though I am often appalled by their actions, my job entails doing more than judging them.  

My job is also to educate them. Yes, I can hear you now, as clearly as I can hear my more vociferous colleagues: sexual assault victims need to be supported and believed, and men need to be held accountable for their behavior. But you know what? I support my students every day. And I hold them accountable for their behavior. I determine how to do this based on more than two decades' worth of experience and interactions with them, and I tend to trust my judgment. I do not appreciate having my hands tied by the presumption of guilt the Dear Colleague Letter portrays.

Let me give you an example of a case I managed not long ago. I'll change a few of the facts, but not the ones that matter here. A woman, in speaking with her resident adviser, revealed that she had had sex with another student several days earlier. They had both been drinking. He invited her to his room and she went, enticed by the promise of more alcohol. Once there, he proceeded to kiss her, then do more, while she, according to her written report, "felt uncomfortable." Twice he stopped what he was doing and left her on the bed, once to turn on some music and once to get a condom. He also took a phone call in the middle of everything. She remained on his bed, thinking, "This is not really something that I want to do." She acquiesced to his request that she assume a certain position, that she do certain things to him. "But I really didn't want to." When he was done, he offered to walk her back to her dorm, and he did, saying goodnight to her and promising to see her the next morning at breakfast (which he did).  

A week after she filed her report with us, beginning the process of charging him with sexual assault (she was, after all, drunk, and never verbally consented to any of his requests), a friend of hers came to us with a very similar report. Almost identical, in fact. He offered to share alcohol he had in his room. He quickly became intimate. She felt uncomfortable. He spoke, made requests, moved across the room for a condom from his dresser. She never verbally consented. She acquiesced to his requests without comment. He walked her back to her room. They had a friendly conversation the next day, and the day after that, just as they had before the incident. Both women then e-mailed their professors requesting some leniency for their class work because they had been "sexually assaulted in a dorm and were working on bringing charges against another student."  

Two sexual assault charges against one student? Could I defend letting him remain on campus while we investigated this? My trusted (real) colleague said no -- that if that information got out to those on our campus who felt that we should have immediately removed him, the criticism would be sharp. Furthermore, my (real) colleague said, "If you don't, you are leaving yourself open to a clear violation of the spirit of the Dear Colleague Letter," which says that an institution must "take immediate action to eliminate the hostile environment… including taking interim steps before the final outcome of the investigation."    

"But these women are not saying they feel threatened by his presence on campus."

"What if a third comes forward, and you have to explain that you knew about these first two and didn't immediately send him home?"  

And so I did, and the case proceeded from there.    

Looking back, I wish I had been able to bring these students together, to talk about what had happened, given them each a chance to air their grievances, respond, learn from what had happened. I have done that countless times in my office — mediated and sorted through differences between students who have behaved badly toward each other. I think this male student might have learned a lot about how to treat women. And perhaps these women would have learned something about self-respect, agency, their own perception of the place of sex in a relationship.  

But the Dear Colleague Letter says clearly that "In cases involving allegations of sexual assault, mediation is not appropriate even on a voluntary basis." And my fear — yes, it's fear — of seeing my institution's name in Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Education as the subject of an investigation, or, even worse, having the "letter of agreement" OCR makes public displayed for all to read — makes me toe the line in a way I sometimes have trouble justifying to myself. I don't want my employer to be the next University of Notre Dame, College of Notre Dame, Yale, Eastern Michigan.  

It's not that I believe that we shouldn’t be held accountable, and yes, it's likely that these and other institutions should have done things differently. It's just that in my most honest moments, despite the efforts of my (real) colleagues here to craft the best possible approach, I doubt our policies and practices could hold up to the intense scrutiny of the team of lawyers OCR will send after us should a complaint arise. Surely, I reason, you will find something, somewhere, that we could have done better.  At that point, all the good we might have also done will be lost in the public critique you will offer and we, because we must, will accept without retort.

That should explain the fact that I am an anonymous author. For six months, my (real) colleagues, here and on other campuses, have been talking about the Dear Colleague Letter, about the problems it creates for us, about the apparent lack of understanding of student culture it demonstrates. But we never say these things too publicly. We worry about being branded "soft" on sexual assault by victims' rights groups and by the media, and we worry about attracting your attention. Our voice has been missing from this debate, just as it seems our input was missing from your letter.  

None of us want you knocking on our doors, Title IX complaint in hand, ready to put us under the microscope and force us to explain to you, a group of skilled attorneys, why we did what we did. And that's the difference between you and my real colleagues: I value their feedback and criticism. In fact, we welcome it from each other, as evidenced by the conversations we constantly have about the decisions we are facing and the improvements we are always trying to make. But we trust that each of us understands what we are up against. I'm not at all sure you do.

The author is a student affairs professional at an accredited institution.

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