Imagine if Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer blacked out who was getting paid what from the city budget before releasing it to the public — keeping how much of your money certain people make private, even though it is still considered a “public record.”
That’s exactly the situation at the University of Central Florida, which is hiding names from public records involving nearly $20 million in state funds, by claiming the budgetary documents are confidential “education records.”
“The identity would have been removed because this is linked up to non-directory information about the student, the non-directory information being the salary,” said UCF attorney Youndy Cook, when referencing salaries paid to students by student government, with a nearly 20 million dollar pool of state money.
If Mayor Dyer ever hid that kind of information from the public, chances are the Orlando Sentinel would sue to enforce the public’s right to oversee its government.
So after UCF blacked out names showing who was spending what from an $18.9 million budget of public funds — as well as who was being paid — KnightNews.com filed a lawsuit to fight for the public’s right to know.
One year later, with one hour left in trial set for Wednesday at 2:15 p.m., the public’s right to know will lie in the hands of Circuit Court Judge Patricia Doherty.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
The conflict comes down to each sides’ definition of an “education record.”
Florida Law makes education records confidential by adopting the definition from a federal privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA.
FERPA defines an education record as a record that directly relates to a student and is maintained by an educational institution.
UCF holds that same definition, and keeps it as broad as possible so it can cover almost any record containing a student name, no matter how public that record can be considered.
On the other hand, KnightNews.com believes that the definition of a confidential educational record is limited and includes things of a more private nature such as SAT scores and academic transcripts.
Because the definition of an education record is ambiguous and up to interpretation, discrepancies easily arise. KnightNews.com discovered another example of this discrepancy after asking UCF for some examples of what it considers an education record, including the case of parking tickets.
“As to the question for parking, yes, a parking ticket issued to a student directly relates to the student and is maintained by the institution,” UCF said. “Therefore, it is an obvious education record.”
KnightNews.com shared UCF’s statement with attorney Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, who strongly disagreed.
“This is a ridiculous position,” LoMonte said. “Judges in Maryland and North Carolina have ruled that parking tickets are not FERPA records because they have nothing to do with a student’s role as a student. A 50-year-old visitor can get a parking ticket just as a 20-year-old student can, so incurring a parking ticket has nothing to do with being a student.”
He also pointed out the risk of UCF taking such a position.
“The university’s position is frivolous and without legal grounding. A lawyer who advanced that position in court in the face of zero legal support and several court rulings to the contrary would be in danger of being sanctioned,” LoMonte said. “You have to wonder what UCF must know is in those parking tickets. In Maryland, the university was concealing a ticket-fixing scandal within the athletic department. Inquiring minds would wonder what UCF believes those parking tickets will show if they are disclosed, as the law requires.”
U.S. SUPREME COURT SHEDS LIGHT ON FERPA
Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court case Owasso v. Falvo, KnightNews.com argued in a court filing that “records maintained or created by student governments are not ‘education records’ covered by FERPA. They do not become part of a student’s institutional record and do not reflect student grades or instances of student discipline. Rather, the redactions are simply of information that identifies the names of individuals elected by the public to allocate an $18.9 million budget of public funds.”
KnightNews.com attorney Justin Hemlepp also underlined the importance the state of Florida puts on the public’s right to know.
“UCF’s assertion that these individuals can control public funds in secrecy by preventing the public from knowing who they are is foreign to Florida law and flies in the face of the common sense reality that these people put their names out there while electioneering and on the ballot. Upon winning an election, their identities do not thereafter become secret,” Hemlepp wrote in a recent court filing.
The end of the trial Wednesday will also mark the public announcement of a new UCF student body president and vice president, and should KnightNews.com win, their identities will stay public once they start spending your money.