Circuit Judge John E. Jordan has ruled UCF must provide un-redacted Student Government financial documents to Knight News, a victory for open-government advocates and student journalists.
The controversy began earlier this year, when Knight News submitted a request for documents relating to the expenditure of the Activity and Service Fee, a fee that every student pays as part of his or her tuition. The Student Government Senate decides how the $18.6 million Activity and Service Fee is allocated to different registered student organizations.
After over a month passed without receiving the documents, Knight News filed a lawsuit accusing the University of not providing the records within a timely manner. A few days after the lawsuit was filed, the University sent versions of the documents which redacted the names of student government officers spending student money to lobby in Tallahassee, among other items.
The University has cited FERPA as a defense for redacting the documents. FERPA, or Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law meant to protect the education records of students. FERPA typically applies to matters such as grades, test scores, and disciplinary records, not public financial documents.
The ruling was praised by the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization which fights to protect the rights of student journalists across the country.
“Judge Jordan has correctly diagnosed the foundational hypocrisy in how UCF and other universities misapply FERPA for self-serving concealment purposes,” said SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte. “When a student shows up asking to see his own records, almost nothing is covered by FERPA, and when a journalist shows up asking to inspect public records, almost everything is.”
Judge Jordan also denied UCF’s request that Knight News pay the University’s attorney fees. The University had previously attempted to sanction Knight News with expensive fees eight separate times. As of now, Knight News is the only independent student publication covering UCF and SGA. Had Knight News been forced to pay these attorney fees, the publication would have been crippled, and UCF would have effectively prevented the University’s own students from practicing journalism.
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte also expressed sharp disapproval toward University President John Hitt.
“How a student government spends public money is, manifestly, the public’s business. UCF is far out of the mainstream in its outlandish overuse of FERPA, and it’s time for President Hitt to stop wasting the taxpayers’ money indulging his obsession with secrecy,” LoMonte said.
Knight News has reached out to SGA President and UCF Trustee Chris Clemente for comment, but has not yet heard back.
Watch the full raw video of the hearing: