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University doesn't understand privacy laws

Oklahoma State University refuses to release names on university-issued parking tickets and claims tickets are federally protected educational information.  

An open records request from The Daily O’Collegian for all parking tickets issued during the Spring 2012 semester yielded 14,041 results, and all names were redacted from the tickets because OSU claims that information is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 

But judges in Maryland and North Carolina have ruled that parking tickets are not confidential information and should not be considered educational records. 

OSU attorney Doug Price said those cases do not change the university’s interpretation of the law. But Frank LoMonte, a national expert on FERPA, said OSU can’t ignore those rulings and believes the law does not protect the names of students who receive parking tickets. 

Additionally, LoMonte said, if the tickets were educational information, they should not be placed on windshields in public view. 

“If something really were a confidential educational record, you shouldn’t stick it on a windshield and leave it unattended,” he said.  “They certainly wouldn’t take your report card and stick it under your windshield wiper and leave it on public display for anyone to see.”

 

Why Care?

The Daily O’Collegian requested the tickets hoping to analyze what students pay their parking tickets and if there are any groups of students who do not pay. 

The newspaper also hoped the tickets would show what areas of campus are most strictly enforced and where students get the most tickets. 

But the conflict over parking tickets is indicative of a larger issue. 

OSU came under intense scrutiny in the past months for its interpretation of the law when it claimed FERPA prevented them from reporting sexual assaults to police.

The university has since investigated and changed its policy regarding reporting sexual assaults, however OSU has denied multiple record requests from The O’Colly in the past two years on the basis of FERPA. 

In addition to student conduct records and parking tickets, the university has also used the law to justify denying requests for emails because they might contain a student’s name. 

All are cases in which the director of the Student Press Law Center believes the university in misinterpreting the law. 

“You would think after having burned themselves on the stove of FERPA once, (OSU) would be hesitant to subject themselves to that again,” LoMonte said. “But they are once again relying on this unsustainable interpretation of FERPA that is inconsistent with the way other people read it and undermines the public interest.”

 

The Law

In 1988 the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that parking tickets would not qualify as records protected by the act when the University of Maryland’s student newspaper challenged the university’s claim. 

More recently, a North Carolina state judge agreed with the ruling and ordered the University of North Carolina to release parking ticket records to its student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. 

OSU attorney Doug Price said he is aware of these cases but said they do not affect the university’s interpretation of the law. 

“A state court decision from another state is not the first thing on our mind in the morning,” Price said. 

However, Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, said OSU should take stock in what other courts have said. 

“Whether a document is a FERPA record is a matter of federal law; it doesn’t vary by state,” LoMonte said. “If a North Carolina judge believes FERPA doesn’t apply to parking tickets, then that interpretation can’t be just shrugged off.”

FERPA is a federal act that ensures all of a student’s educational information will remain private unless that student authorizes otherwise. The act also allows a student to inspect his or her records to ensure there are no inaccuracies.

According to the Oklahoma Open Records Act, police parking ticket information is considered public information. 

Price gave two reasons for his stance that parking tickets should be considered “educational records” under the federal law, the first being that the tickets never become police information. 

“It’s always been our position that those are student records because they never go to police,” Price said. 

According to the US Department of Education, the law does not protect records created and maintained by a “law enforcement unit,” which includes “non-commissioned security guards, that (are) officially authorized or designated by the school to: enforce any local, State, or Federal law…or to maintain the physical security and safety of the school.” Whether that would refer to those who enforce OSU’s parking lots has not been determined by a state or federal court. 

Price’s second reasoning was OSU considers any record maintained by the university to be an “educational record,” unless it is exempted by an open record law or by FERPA, and this would include parking tickets. 

“We’ve taken a broad view of what we consider to be a student’s educational records to include those,” Price said. 

LoMonte said he rejects the idea that any and all records maintained by the university are “educational.”

“The whole idea that FERPA applies to ‘education records’ implies that there are a number of university records that are not educational,” he said. “And if that’s not parking tickets, then I don’t know what is.”

The question of what is and isn’t an educational record also depends on where the records are stored, courts have said. 

In one of its rulings the Supreme Court said “educational records” refers to records that are stored in a “central location.”

OSU Communications Director Gary Shutt said OSU does not keep students educational records in any central location, and Parking and Transit Director Steve Spradling said the parking ticket database is not even housed in the same database as the rest of OSU’s records. 

“Parking tickets are not in the same database as other educational information because it takes a large database to keep all of our parking tickets and citations all together,” Spradling said. “Our server is actually hosted off site in a secure facility. It’s not even in the same facility.”

In addition to rulings in other states, LoMonte said there are more common sense arguments against parking tickets being considered private educational information. 

“Anyone can get a parking ticket,” he said. “I can get a parking ticket parking next to (a student), and it’s ridiculous that my ticket is considered an open record and yours is a private educational record. It seems illogical. “

 

OSU and FERPA

In an attempt to find what, specifically, the university considers to be an “educational record,” The Daily O’Collegian made an open records request in January for all the records the university considers to be one reporter’s FERPA protected files. 

With only a few exceptions, the university compiled and returned what LoMonte called a “pretty faithful” list of what would normally be considered educational records. 

This included Registrar information, Student Conduct records, university employment records, financial aid information and Bursar billing statements. The only record returned to that was certainly not a FERPA record was the reporter’s university health services records, which is protected by a different federal privacy statute 

Noticeably absent were the reporter’s parking ticket records. 

Price said what was returned is not an indication that the university does not consider tickets to be FERPA information, but it must have been an oversight. 

LoMonte disagreed. 

“I think (the absence of the parking tickets) shows that they know very well what should be considered a FERPA record,” he said. “And they know vey well parking tickets are not FERPA records.”

 

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