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Iowa Supreme Court issues ruling on UI sexual assault records

[ 0 ] July 13, 2012 |

The Supreme Court of Iowa has ruled that the University of Iowa does not have to turn over some student records related to a 2007 sexual assault investigation on campus.

Over the course of the Press-Citizen’s four-and-a-half year legal battle with the university over the records, the institution was forced to turn over hundreds of documents it attempted to withhold. Press-Citizen attorney Paul Burns said the remaining documents that will not be disclosed represent a “small subset” of all of the documents related to the investigation.

“It’s a very small number of pages,” Burns said Friday. “It doesn’t change the fact that…they did violate the opens records law.”

“While we are disappointed by the court’s decision, we are pleased that because of our persistence in this case, thousands of pages of documents that otherwise would have been withheld by the University were made public,” said Tricia Brown, senior editor of the Press-Citizen.

The court’s 26-pag ruling, which was split 4-3, cites Iowa’s Open Records law which states that records are not to be disclosed if they would “cause the denial of federal funds to a state agency.” The University of Iowa has argued that releasing the documents – which the university argues are student records – would violate the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act and cost the institution funding from the Department of Education.

The Press-Citizen sued the university in January 2008 after seeking documents related to a sexual assault investigation on campus. In October 2007, the university investigated allegations of sexual assault brought by a student athlete that ultimately resulted in charges filed against two former football players.

On Nov. 13, 2007, the Press-Citizen filed a records request with the university seeking documents related to the sexual assault investigation. The university provided the newspaper 18 pages of documents, arguing the remaining documents were protected by FERPA. The Press-Citizen eventually sued the university for violating the state’s open records law.

The newspaper later filed a motion to compel the university to produce an index of the documents it was withholding and in August 2008, UI released 950 pages of documents and an index of more than 3,000 pages of documents.

A year later, after reviewing the documents in question and separating them into categories based on whether they had been released or if they could be released with or without redactions, Sixth Judicial District Court Douglass Russell ordered that the documents be released and the university pay the Press-Citizen’s attorney fees.

In October 2009, the university appealed the district court’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

The court ruled that it had to determine how the state’s open records act and FERPA interact with each other.

“This case requires us to decide where disclosure ends and where confidentiality begins under the Iowa Open Records Act and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act,” the ruling states.

The ruling notes that the debate as to whether FERPA prevents the disclosure of educational records has played out in other jurisdictions, with varying results.
“It’s an interesting legal issue,” Burns said. “Seven judges are struggling over it, too.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that a provision of the open records act accounts for FERPA.

“If it is determined that any provision of this chapter would cause the denial of funds, services or essential information from the United States government which would otherwise definitely be available to an agency of this state, such a provision shall be suspended,” the records law states.

The Press-Citizen countered that only applies if you university had a policy or practice specifically stating in will release educational records. However, the court ruled that the university would be setting a precedent and would be vulnerable to the denial of funding.

Citing Department of Education regulations, the court also found that the records can be “withheld in their entirety where the requester would otherwise know the identity of the reference student or students even with redactions.”

“The university is pleased that the court agreed with our stance regarding the importance of protecting the privacy of our students,” UI spokesman Tom Moore said Friday.

The dissenting opinion states that compliance with a judicial order does not amount to a policy or practice of an educational agency or institution and would not constitute a FERPA violation.

“While federal law plainly is supreme, I find no conflict between FERPA and the Iowa Public Records Act,” the dissenting opinion states. “As a result, I would require the disclosure of public records in this case.”

The state Supreme Court did uphold the lower court’s ruling that the university should pay the Press-Citizen’s legal fees, which UI did not appeal.

As a result of the sexual assault investigation, former UI football players Cedric Everson and Abeberell Satterfield were charged with second-degree sexual abuse. Everson was also charged with third-degree sexual abuse.

Satterfield pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and testified against Everson. During Everson’s trial, the third-degree sexual abuse charge was dropped and Everson was found guilty of assault.

The victim’s mother also released a letter to the Press-Citizen criticizing the university’s response to her daughter’s allegations. The Press-Citizen published the letter, which led to an investigation of university officials associated with the sexual assault response.

As a result of the investigation, UI general counsel Marcus Mills and UI vice president for student services Phil Jones were fired by President Sally Mason. Mills and Jones have since sued the university.

The Press-Citizen made several points in its arguments as to why the records should be public, but the key sticking point between the majority and minorty on the court is a particular line in FERPA, which states that federal funds shall not be available “to any educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice” or releasing personally identifiable without the written consent of parents.

In their dissent, Justice Brent Appel wrote that an order from a district court doesn’t amount to a policy or practice of an educational agency or institution.

“In my view, compliance with a judicial order pursuant to a generally applicable state public records statute does not amount to a policy or practice of any educational agency or institution,” Appel wrote, with justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joining. “The majority opinion repeatedly cites ‘policy or practice,’ while omitting the statutory requirement that the ‘policy or practice’ must be one of the ‘educational agency or institution.’ In effect, the majority opinion amends the statute to strike the words ‘agency or institution.’”

In other words, complying with a district court ruling wouldn’t jeopardize the university’s federal funding.

The university only challenged part of the district court’s ruling, so the rest of the disclosure order by the district court still stands. The Press-Citizen is still awaiting disclosure of some of the documents not subject to the Supreme Court’s ruling. The university also didn’t challenge the order that it pay the Press-Citizen’s legal fees.

Justice Edward Mansfield wrote the majority opinion, with justices Mark Cady, Thomas Waterman, and Bruce Zager joining.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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