U of I Files Appeal in Case Concerning Student Records

July 13, 2011

The University of Illinois has formally appealed a federal judge's ruling that student and family records be disclosed.

The brief filed Wednesday stems from a lawsuit filed last year by the Chicago Tribune. The U of I denied Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the paper seeking the names and addresses of parents of Urbana campus applicants who were enrolled over more qualified ones.

The University contends those records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. U of I attorney Sam Skinner said information like test scores are protected due to privacy issues, similar to what is seen in health care.

Skinner said it is clear the measure should apply to both admitted students, and those who apply and are rejected.

"What they're really looking for in this particular case is students who were admitted, and what the information is on their students, including information about the families, where they live, and also there's a request pending that deals with actual ACT scores and other information," Skinner said. "We think that's clearly covered by FERPA."

The U of I complied with prior FOIA requests from the Tribune, submitting nearly 6,000 documents, including e-mails, but the Tribune filed suit over redacted names in those e-mails. The investigation of the so-called Category I list resulted in the resignation of former U of I President Joseph White, and the resignations of six of nine U of I Trustees. The university said failure to comply with FERPA could mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for financial aid and academic grants.

The Champaign News-Gazette is not a party to this lawsuit, but also filed many FOIA requests. Publisher John Foreman said scholarship recipients should be public information, or the system should be abolished altogether.

"It's our belief, and I think it's been demonstrated a number of times over the years, that many of these scholarships are political rewards to family members, friends, and campaign workers," he said. "Who knows who else?"

Oral arguments are expected in the fall, but Skinner said he does not expect a resolution until late this year at the earliest. He said the court will have a chance to respond, then the U of I will have a chance to file some additional briefing. In granting the University's stay the order pending appeal, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall welcomed an appeal so protections afforded by federal law could be clarified.

Story source: WILL