UWM student newspaper sues university

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Last Wednesday, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was sued by its student newspaper affiliate, the UWM Post, for allegedly violating Wisconsin’s public records law.

Records of Union Policy Board committee  meetings — which are held to formulate and set policy for the overall operation of the UW-Milwaukee Union — were specifically redacted by the university to leave out pertinent information like names, agendas and minutes. The records dated back to August 2008.

Jonathan Anderson, special projects editor for the Post, requested the documents in January to investigate a story.

“I made the request because I had heard that the board might have been discussing office allocations during the fall semester,” Anderson said. “The board usually doesn’t take up office allocations until late in the spring semester.”

Particularly, the Post aimed to find names of college employees serving on student disciplinary hearing panels and travel records of student government officers who took trips through UWM at the expense of taxpayers.

Editors of the Post have been trying to gain access to these records since their first request in January, and have been denied repeatedly. Godfrey & Kahn lawyers from the Student Press Law Center, an organization that educates student journalists of their First Amendment rights and provides free legal help, asked UWM to reconsider in April, but were also denied.

Tom Luljak, UWM vice chancellor of university relations and communications, said the university has been supportive of the Post.

“We have been very cooperative with the UWM Post in responding to their requests for public documents,” Luljak said. “We have responded to over 40 requests and have provided thousands of documents.”

Luljak would not comment on the lawsuit because he said it is against UWM’s policy to comment on pending litigation.

In defense of the redaction, UWM is applying the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to the Union Policy Board meetings. The act protects the privacy of student education records.

Kevin Lessmiller, editor in chief of the Post, doesn’t agree with this classification.

“The basis of our lawsuit is that no, there is not validity to UWM’s claim that FERPA protects student identities in these records,” Lessmiller said. “We disagree with the decision, and we do not see the Union Policy Board as ‘educational records’ as defined by FERPA.”

The interpretive definition of “educational records” will form the core of the argument when UWM responds to the claim in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on Dec. 16.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, believes FERPA is badly in need of clarification.

“FERPA is a confusing law … but UWM’s ultra-literal interpretation is the most extreme and nonsensical that we have ever seen,” LoMonte said in the SPLC press release. “Congress intended FERPA to protect truly confidential information, such as grades, where there is no legitimate public interest in disclosure.”

However, Lessmiller said he believes there is legitimate public interest in the records the Post sought to attain.

“The students on the Union Policy Board are making decisions with public funds, decisions that greatly affect student life at UWM,” Lessmiller said. “Why shouldn’t we be able to hold them accountable through open records like any other public official?”

Nonetheless, Lessmiller said he doesn’t think the university withheld the redacted information for any other reason besides avoiding the infringement of FERPA.

“I think it’s just a case of a university trying too hard not to violate FERPA, and actually going too far with their interpretation of what the law applies to,” Lessmiller said.

Lessmiller said he believes the lawsuit is a stand for accountability and reporters’ rights.

“I think this FERPA issue is a particular problem facing student reporters on college campuses all across the country,” Lessmiller said. “We really don’t think Congress intended FERPA to be used in this way. I think it’s time somebody stepped up and challenged this radical interpretation of the law.”