The state’s two largest universities are abusing a federal academic records privacy law with their claims that student parking citations aren’t public records, according to open records attorneys. Officials at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University said parking tickets issued to students fall under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that requires schools to keep secret students’ education records. Mike Minnis, an Oklahoma City attorney who often handles open records cases, said the universities are abusing an exception that is often overused. "It is directed at academic records,” Minnis said. "It is not directed at other records such as law enforcement records. FERPA is kind of a catch-all that universities will use when they don’t want people to know what they are doing.” OU General Counsel Anil Golahalli said all records that include a student’s name are secret under the law. OSU attorney Doug Price gave a similar justification for keeping the records secret when a student reporter for the school’s Daily O’Collegian newspaper recently requested names of those who were issued parking citations on campus. "We are governed not by commentators in the press,” Golahalli said. "We are governed by the Department of Education and how it interprets FERPA.” In fact, the courts ultimately determine the meaning of the law. A Maryland appellate court ruled in 1997 that it does not apply to parking citations and that the law was intended to keep secret aspects of a student’s academic status. "Prohibiting disclosure of any document containing a student’s name would allow universities to operate in secret, which would be contrary to one of the policies behind the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act,” the court said. Officials from both universities said their parking citations are administrative records, not law enforcement records. By that logic, campus visitors could disregard parking laws because the school has no enforcement power beyond threatening administrative consequences like holding a diploma. "It’s not a law enforcement matter,” OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said. "Our administrative people would request payments from visitors who were ticketed. I don’t know how far that would go before we would turn that over to law enforcement.” Frank LoMonte, an attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the courts and Congress have been clear that the law refers to academic records like grades. "It is meant to be applied in a common sense way to educational records,” LoMonte said. "There are a lot of laws you could interpret to a ridiculous extreme. But that’s not the way courts read laws.” School officials said they are cautious because they fear losing funding if they violate the law. LoMonte said such concerns are laughable. "In the 36-year history of FERPA, it has never happened,” LoMonte said. "No school has been penalized one dime.” The problem of secretive universities isn’t unique to Oklahoma, said Charles Davis, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "Universities have always struck me as deeply ironic because they are ostensibly all about the discovery of information.” "When it comes to academic freedom, they are. When it comes to the information within the bureaucracy they create, they are among the most secretive institutions in government.”
Records offices could violate lawOpen records advocates are concerned that both the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University are violating state law by filtering all records requests through one campus office. OU recently created an open records office that includes one records clerk and an assistant. OSU requires all records requests go through school spokesman Gary Shutt’s office. Joey Senat, an OSU journalism professor and open government expert, said the schools are violating two parts of the Oklahoma Open Records Act with those offices. One section of the law requires someone be on hand at all times during business hours to handle records requests. Senat said his journalism students say they often find Shutt’s office empty when they need to request records. With only one person able to respond to requests, OU is in similar danger of violating the law anytime the employee is sick, on vacation or otherwise out of the office. Senat said a legally-binding state attorney general’s opinion also mandates records be available in the office in which they are kept. Requiring people to go across campus to request records in one office is in conflict with that provision, Senat said. "The law allows us to handle and develop a process for open records that we think makes sense for our organization,” Shutt said. "It’s perfectly within our legal right.” OU General Counsel Anil Golahalli said sending 3,000-plus records requests a year through one person is efficient. He said it takes OU officials one or two days to respond to a basic records request. In contrast, Oklahoma City Clerk Frances Kersey said she has six people on her staff, which is available to respond to records requests every day. The city also has a records clerk in each of its 15 departments and a backup records clerk in case someone is out of the office.