The University of Florida’s legal fight to keep Student Government records secret has so far cost the taxpayer funded institution nearly $30,000 in outside legal fees, documents released to KnightNews.com show.

After UF was sued by Frank Bracco, a former student seeking Student Government audio and video records, the university used public money to hire Jacksonville attorney and UF alumnus John A. DeVault III to argue that a federal privacy law known as FERPA prohibited the records’ release.

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An Alachua County circuit court judge disagreed with UF’s argument — that the videos constituted confidential education records — and ordered that UF release the requested records.

The federal privacy law cited when, according to the judge, UF illegally denied Bracco the public records, has been criticized by the Society of Professional Journalists as having been “twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret.”

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, UF is not the first university to lose legal battles after being accused of misinterpreting FERPA to hide how public money is spent.

In Milwaukee, the SPJ reports, the editor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s student newspaper sued when a university refused to release records of a school policy-making board because revealing information about the board’s student members — including their names and their recorded voices — might violate FERPA.

UWM backed down and settled, and even agreed to pay the student paper’s attorneys more than $11,700 in fees.

In Florida, the Public Record Law mandates a government agency pay the legal fees of the citizen illegally denied records. Bracco is seeking those fees from UF, which if awarded, would add to the total cost of the lawsuit for UF — on top of the fees it paid to the Jacksonville law firm.

When KnightNews.com filed a public records request for invoices and other financial documents showing the cost UF incurred in defending itself, the university turned over 57 pages of documents, which contain invoices totaling more than $27,000.

The exact amount of public money the lawsuit will cost UF — including if any pending bills are processed — is not yet clear. The most recent invoice produced during the request was dated Nov. 4, 2010. If UF appeals the lawsuit, the amount of public money spent on the lawsuit could increase dramatically.

The Office Building of the Law Firm UF hired in the Bracco Lawsuit (Google Maps)

It’s not clear whether that will happen, as UF has not said much publicly after its defeat, and did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit when KnightNews.com first broke how UF lost its battle in January.

According to the public records, DeVault is charging UF an hourly rate of $275 per hour for his work on the case and .55 cents per mile to travel from Jacksonville to Gainesville. UF also picked up the tab for a $25.23 lunch charged to DeVault’s credit card at Gainesville’s Emiliano’s Cafe.

According to DeVault’s bio page, he “has been continuously listed in The Best Lawyers in America since 1987” and “received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, where he was a member of Florida Blue Key, Executive Editor of the Law Review, and a member of the Moot Court team.”

KnightNews.com will continue monitoring lawsuits over FERPA, including this one, and report the costs and results. Check back for updates.

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