CHICAGO (CN) – A state court must determine whether the University of Illinois should tell the Chicago Tribune which students got preferential admissions treatment, the 7th Circuit ruled.
In 2009, the Tribune published a series of articles called “Clout Goes to College,” exposing a “secret admissions system” in which the school admitted well-connected applicants who did not otherwise meet normal admissions criteria.
University President Joseph White, UIUC Chancellor Richard Herman, and seven of the nine members of the Board of Trustees resigned following the scandal.
Though the university ended the policy, it declined to identify the students who had been admitted in this way, invoking an exemption to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act that covers “information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or State law or rules and regulations implementing federal or state law.”
University lawyers claimed that the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 barred disclosure of the requested names and addresses of every applicant in a suspect category created by the admissions office.
The act reads: “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 other than directory information … of students without the written consent of their parents to any individual, agency, or organization.”
In a federal complaint, the Tribune said the 1974 law dictates merely how the secretary of education may spend federal funds.
Finding that there was federal jurisdiction, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall sided with the newspaper in March 2011.
But the 7th Circuit reversed last week, ruling that the implicated legal questions arise from state law.
“It is not clear to us that the 1974 Act and the implementing regulations forbid disclosure of any document that is outside the scope of the [Illinois Freedom of Information Act] exemption,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for a three-member panel.
“A state court therefore might rule in the university’s favor wholly as a matter of state law – which suggests that the federal issue not only is not ‘necessarily’ presented, but may never be presented at all, rending a federal court’s decision nothing but an advisory opinion.”
The U.S. government is the sole entity that could question the 1974 law in federal court, according to the 7th Circuit.
“The natural plaintiff in a claim arising under state law cannot use a declaratory-judgment action to litigate an anticipated federal defense in federal court,” Easterbrook wrote. “The Tribune accordingly must proceed in a court of Illinois.”
Though the university also argued that additional exemptions to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act would apply, the appellate panel declined to address these claims.
“There is a substantial public interest in the information the Tribune seeks,” Easterbrook wrote. “There is also a substantial public interest … in protecting the legitimate privacy students and their families. Because the Tribune’s claim to the information arises under Illinois law, the state court is the forum to determine the validity of whatever defenses the University presents to the Tribune’s request.”