A Florida judge sided with college students in a lawsuit between a public university and a student newspaper earlier this month.
After listening to attorneys from the University of Central Florida and Knight News, Inc., circuit judge John E. Jordan ordered the university to hand over UCF Student Government Association files with the names of members who spent the school’s Activity and Service budget.
Justin Hemlepp, an attorney for the non-profit student newspaper in Orlando and UF alumnus, said the judge’s decision was a victory for the students. It was the third lawsuit between the student paper and UCF.
“This order is about the records,” he said. “It was exactly what we’ve been arguing for three years now. Student government records aren’t education records, because they’re not maintained by the university.”
Chad Binette, the assistant vice president of UCF News and Information, wrote in an email that UCF, while disappointed with the ruling, is evaluating options.
“Our goal has always been to comply with both public records laws and federal laws protecting the privacy of student information,” he said.
The trial began in May after the student paper requested to see their student government’s budget, but after a month passed with no response from the university, the paper sued, Hemlepp said.
UCF eventually handed over the documents, in which they redacted the names of students who allocated, oversaw and spent money.
Attorneys for UCF argued the names of students were redacted because the university could lose funding from the Department of Education for violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which gives money to public institutions for protecting students’ educational records.
“Because if we don’t, under FERPA, the university can lose its eligibility for federal funding,” said Richard Mitchell, an attorney for UCF. “This is a big deal, and we take it seriously.”
Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said that argument was false.
“That’s a total nonsense argument,” he said. “They know they can’t lose federal money because no school in the 43-year history of FERPA has ever lost their funding, and they know that other colleges around the country have produced student government documents.”
After the judge’s order, UCF asked Jordan for a rehearing, which he denied.
LoMonte, who has been following the case since it started, said UCF’s treatment toward Knight News, Inc. is like nothing he’s ever seen.
“I’ve never seen a university go after its own students with this level of voracity, where they’re literally trying to bankrupt their own students,” he said. “I’ve just never seen a university go out of its way to try and inflict harm on its own students the way that UCF is. And you really have to wonder who’s calling the shots there.”