Appeals court cites “legitimate privacy” of students, families
in victory for students, University of Illinois
Federal court ruling vacated, issue left for state court to decide.
CHICAGO – In an important victory for the privacy rights of students, and affirming that “there is substantial public interest ... in protecting the legitimate privacy of students and their families” as it applies to public universities, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals today vacated the decision of a federal district court in the case of the Chicago Tribune versus the University of Illinois regarding student documents.
The three-judge appellate panel instructed the district court to dismiss the federal case and allow the issues presented to be addressed by a state court. A separate but related state case between the Tribune and University of Illinois is already pending in Sangamon County. The cases stem from a series of 2009 Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by the Tribune as the basis of articles regarding admissions at the University’s Urbana-Champaign campus.
The 11-page opinion was written by Chief Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook and was joined by Circuit Judges Richard Posner and Ann Williams.
“There is a substantial public interest in the information the Tribune seeks. There is also substantial public interest, [under federal and state laws], in protecting the legitimate privacy of students and their families,” Easterbrook wrote. “Because the Tribune’s claim to the information arises under Illinois law, the state court is the right forum to determine the validity of whatever defenses the University presents.”
An attorney for the University applauded the decision that no federal jurisdiction existed for the case. “The University is gratified that the Appellate Court has clearly recognized the critical importance of student privacy rights – a contention at the heart of our legal battle to preserve federal protections for students and their families,” said Samuel K. Skinner of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, which has represented the University in the case, Chicago Tribune Company v. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
“The Appellate ruling also clearly points to the need for the state to recognize the University of Illinois’ commitment to uphold these federal protections – an enormously encouraging signal from the federal bench. We remain deeply committed to protecting students’ privacy rights enshrined in federal law – rights acknowledged in this ruling – and we look forward to making our case in state court,” Skinner said.
Today’s ruling leaves intact almost 40 years of federally protected privacy rights for public higher education students and their families. The widely anticipated ruling held that a lower court lacked jurisdiction to order the University to give a local newspaper records that school officials argued were protected by federal privacy law. The University had appealed a federal court ruling that threatened to undermine a decades-old law protecting the privacy of student records, put hundreds of millions in federal student financial aid at risk, and establish a two-tiered hierarchy favoring private colleges over public universities. The Department of Justice, Illinois public universities and national higher education and privacy rights advocates all filed briefs supporting the University’s position.
In 2010 the Tribune filed a federal lawsuit against the University for denying a December 2009 FOIA request that sought the names and addresses of the parents of certain Urbana-Champaign campus applicants who subsequently enrolled. The U of I had already complied with 13 previous Tribune FOIA requests regarding admissions and so-called “Category I” tracking of applicants and provided the newspaper with more than 5,000 pages of information related to those queries – including the names of public figures, elected officials and university employees. Those previous FOIA responses formed the basis for a series of articles beginning in the spring of 2009, as well as several reforms in admissions procedures that the University subsequently crafted and adopted.
The key legal issues hinged on the courts’ interpretation of FERPA – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 – which affords legal protections to the privacy rights of students. In March, federal district court Judge Joan Gottschall ruled that FERPA did not prevent the University from disclosing student records – but only barred the University from accepting federal funding if it violated the strictures of FERPA by disclosing student and family information protected by the law. Gottschall stayed her own order, and the University appealed. Groups that include the Department of Justice, public universities, academic groups, the American Council on Education, and the privacy advocacy organization EPIC – the Electronic Privacy Information Center – filed briefs supporting the University's legal position.
With the issue left to the state courts for resolution, the University has vowed to continue its defense of the privacy rights of students and their families – rights which school officials believe to be enshrined in state FOIA legislation.
The University of Illinois is a world leader in research and discovery, the largest educational institution in the state with more than 77,000 students, 22,000 faculty and staff, and campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield. The U of I awards more than 19,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees annually.