The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is perhaps one of
the best and strongest tools that citizens (note I didn’t just say media) have
in holding public boards, organizations and institutions accountable. It
provides access to meeting minutes, public votes and hundreds of other
documents that allow us to feel at least a little bit better about how things
work, especially as they apply to the government.
Over the years, I’ve never ceased to be amazed at the
lengths to which people will go to try to dodge their responsibilities under
this act. I’ve seen people reject requests for all sorts of spurious reasons,
including minor typographical errors, “confusion” regarding the specificity of
the request and the ever popular “this request is overly broad.” There are also
much broader and innovative dodges as well. For example, during the 2008
presidential campaign news came out aboutSarah Palin’s “shadow email” system
in which her public account was almost untouched while business was conducted
on private carriers so that FOIA couldn’t touch the governmental emails.
While none of this surprises me, I have to say that the
folks in Milwaukee have outdone almost everyone in the fight to keep your nose
out of their business.
According to a Student Press Law Center release, the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has declared that any document that
identifies a student, even the recording of a student’s voice speaking at a
public meeting, qualifies as a confidential record. Thus, they claim, these
materials are not public record and are protected under FERPA (a.k.a. The
Buckley Amendment). This declaration came after the Post, the UWM student
newspaper, had made FOIA requests regarding things such as the names of college
employees who sit on student disciplinary panels and travel records for student
government officials who took trips at taxpayer expense.
The purpose ofFERPA is to protect students’ rights in
regard to personal information that they garner throughout their education. The
act was initially used to guarantee that students could look at and use their
own records as they saw fit. In short, it granted conservatorship over the
students’ records to those students, as opposed to the institution. Most
schools have a list of directory style information that they are allowed to
release without student approval, but things such as student grades have been
viewed as off limits. However, FERPA does allow the disclosure of information
to parents regarding alcohol or controlled substance violations found at the
school, even if the student is not a dependent. FERPA also allows for the
disclosure of information in various other ways, including the provision of
material to organizations conducing studies for the disclosing institution for
things such as test creation or student aid programs.In short, this isn’t an iron-clad law that prevents any
material from ever being released about any student ever.
What is also clear from this act is that the act is about
educational records, as opposed to public records. Students are not shielded
from having their names on a police blotter if the university police arrest
them during a protest or for illegal substance abuse. Students who seek to
serve on a public board, such as a city council or county commission, are not granted
carte blanche anonymity because of their collegiate status.
Over the years, students have fought for the right to be
represented in organizations and on boards that tend to directly effect them.
Madison, for example, was debating the merits ofadding a student to its
Alcohol License Review Commission. The UW systemhas two student regents on its
board to help shape polices for the campuses around the state. If UWM’s
argument were to be taken to it’s most extreme conclusion, none of these things
would qualify as public meetings any more because of the mere presence of a
student. Worse yet, it would behoove any and all organizations that sought to
hide from FOIA requests to add collegiate members and then shield themselves
with the Buckley Amendment.
The student journalists, with the help of the SPLC, have
filed suit in Wisconsin to help slap some sense into UWM and there’s a pretty
good chance that they’ll win this one, presuming common sense prevails.
However, the bigger issue appears to be this: If you are doing things you don’t
want people to know about, and you are a public institution of any kind, stop
doing them. Trying to stifle the media only makes it look like you’ve got more
So, please, stop pitting one important set of interests
(student representation) against another (people’s right to know) in hopes that
they’ll tear each other apart and you’ll win. It’s a neat trick but in the end
it confirms for all of us that you are the assholes we thought you were.