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College Can’t Hide Behind Student Privacy Law

(CN) - A student privacy law cannot prevent University of Illinois officials from revealing applicants and key players involved in an admissions scandal to a Chicago Tribune reporter, a federal judge ruled.

The newspaper sued the university in 2010 after the school refused to cough up the names of students, their parents and anyone that played a hand in the school's admissions procedure. The request stemmed from the paper's 2009 expose "Clout Goes to College," which uncovered political favoritism in the school's admissions process.

The Tribune uncovered a "clout system" where university higher-ups coerced admissions officials to accept substandard applicants with political ties, leaving qualified hopefuls out in the cold. The university's president resigned after a state panel investigation confirmed the newspaper's claims.

Armed with the Freedom of Information Act, a Tribune reporter attempted to get his hands on the "clout list," which was made up of more than 800 applicants, and was repeatedly denied by university officials. In a letter to the publisher, University President Joseph White claimed the information was protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The case was brought before U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall in Chicago where both parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

In its defense, the Board of Trustees cited a provision of the federal education privacy act that says: "No funds shall be made available under any applicable program to any educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release of education records (or personally identifiable information contained therein...) of students without the written consent of their parents to any individual, agency or organization."

The Tribune argued that the records were not educational and belonged to potential candidates, not students. The disclosure, the paper claimed, could also prove that certain wealthy, connected individuals were being given preferential treatment by admissions officers.

Gottschall noted that privacy act does not give the university authority to block the public or reporters from accessing its documents.

"The court's decision in this case is a narrow one," the judge wrote. "As explained above, the university has identified other provisions of FOIA which may prevent the disclosure of portions of the records requested by the university.

"The court does not intend to discount the potential privacy interests implicated by the Tribune's request," he continued. "The only question presented by this lawsuit is whether FERPA 'specifically prohibits' the requested disclosure. The court must follow the command of the Illinois Supreme Court to construe the exemptions to FOIA narrowly. FERPA does not specifically prohibit Illinois from doing anything, so the University may not use federal law as authority to withhold the records."

Gottschall granted the Tribune's motion for summary judgment.

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