The Post: FERPA is a ‘door that swings both ways’ on student privacy

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series about how FERPA affects student privacy and how Ohio University maintains FERPA-protected documents.

The same federal law that’s used to protect students’ private information has also been accused of concealing questionable records from the public eye.

The creation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act around 40 years ago reflected the government’s desire to protect educational records of students who are 18 years old or older from third party sources.

“FERPA provides rights to students and protects their education records,” said Debra Benton, university registrar, in an email. “It puts the student in control of disclosure of his or her education record.”

Today, that law, often referred to as FERPA, is sometimes cited by universities to keep documents such as football seat subscriptions and student crime records hidden, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“FERPA is a door that swings both ways,” LoMonte said. “Universities aren’t consistent in how they define and use FERPA.”

Some have criticized universities for taking a broad approach to what is protected under FERPA.

“Almost anything in the vaguest sense that pertains to a student has been classified as a student FERPA document,” LoMonte said.

Since the law’s conception, several universities across the country have started citing FERPA for all things privacy-related.

“It is not uncommon for universities to overly rely on FERPA,” said Aimee Edmondson, an associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism who teaches communication law. “There is a spirit of secrecy, no question about it, at any university.”

Edmondson is the current chair of the Post Publishing Board, an advisory committee to The Post.

FERPA can be an especially tricky barrier for student journalists submitting a university public records request.

“(University officials) count on student journalists not knowing the law,” Edmondson said.

“If a journalist shows up, there’s a vast universe of other stuff that becomes FERPA records,” LoMonte said. “It was meant to protect you from overreaching by the government, and it’s ironic now that the government is using it as a shield for its own activities.”

Dave Ridpath, an associate professor and Kahandas Nandola Professor of sports administration, said the definition of FERPA-protected information seems to stretch when convenient to universities.

“The rule of thumb is, if I can find it out about a general student, I should be able to find it out about the athlete,” Ridpath said.

Officials use FERPA “too often as a convenient excuse to hide academic improprieties,” he said.

Awareness of FERPA privacy inconsistencies extends not just to student journalists but also to the public receiving the work of those journalists.

“Everyone benefits from the rigorous enforcement of open government laws,” LoMonte said. “Everyone has an investment in making sure that universities adhere to FERPA but don’t go overboard with secrecy for secrecy sake.”

John Biancamano, General Counsel for OU, declined to comment.

This story also appears on The Post