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The Daily Tar Heel

Universities shouldn't hide behind FERPA

Students don’t have to worry about the University releasing their grades or academic behavior records to the public without their permission.

But the same federal law that protects that information has been broadened and abused by universities to withhold public records — records that if released, could help bring clarity and transparency to government processes.

And UNC is no exception.

In the midst of an investigation into the football team, the University is hurt each time information is revealed that shows a lack of oversight. In response, UNC should operate as openly as possible.

Just more than two weeks ago, a Daily Tar Heel reporter was denied access to a list of student tutors on grounds that a student’s employment was a private educational record.

When asked why the record was private and educational, Regina Stabile, the University’s director of institutional records and report compliance, diverted the question.

“You’d have to ask FERPA to qualify that,” she said.

Well, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is not a person — it is a 1974 law that says federal funds can be withheld from any public school that releases a student’s personal educational record.

That’s all it was meant to protect.

But universities nationally have cited it as a reason to withhold information about everything from public officials’ phone records to public safety records.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, said he gets dozens of calls each year from student and professional newspapers that have been denied public information, with sources citing FERPA.

“It’s very hard to tell who genuinely misunderstands the law and who is just intentionally misstating the law to conceal embarrassing information,” LoMonte said.

UNC spokesman Mike McFarland said compliance with the law is taken seriously.

“We provide the records we’re allowed to provide under FERPA, and withhold the records that FERPA deems private,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is the right thing to do.”

Universities citing the fear of losing federal funds as punishment for releasing too much in records are over-reacting — the government has never withheld a dime from a school for this reason.

But it is a reason that has prompted schools like the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to use FERPA as a blanket excuse for not releasing any records — meeting minutes or names of students on documents — until newspapers sued for them.

In the past, UNC has used FERPA as a reason to close Honor Court drug and sexual assault cases and more recently, the phone numbers of students included in former UNC Associate Coach John Blake’s phone records — items that are not part of a student’s educational record.

Former Sen. James Buckley of New York, the main writer of the law, said he never anticipated such a misinterpretation.
“That’s not what we intended,” he said in May 2009. “The law needs to be revamped. Institutions are putting their own meaning into the law.”

Sarah Frier is the Editor-in-Cheif at the Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior journalism major from Los Altos, CA. E-mail Sarah at

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