Balancing the public’s right to know with a person’s right to privacy is a tricky piece of American society, and this issue is only further complicated on college campuses. Many universities fear federal retribution under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Although the federal government has never actually penalized a college for violating the law, it’s often invoked to stop, or censor, freedom of information requests, effectively blocking the public’s right to know important information about what’s happening on campus.
Unfortunately, the law is “widely misunderstood” and therefore widely misused, according to Jacob Rooksby, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
“[Schools] often want to hide behind it — it’s the great boogeyman in higher ed” (Kingkade, 2016).
Schools must ultimately strike the delicate balance between honoring FERPA and honoring various open records and freedom of information laws.
Practically, this is easier said than done. Where this conflict between privacy and transparency often comes to a head is in the investigation of sexual assaults on college campuses, something few universities have managed to handle successfully.
Some schools, such as Florida State, choose to release select information about these investigations to the public. Though FSU was criticized for its overall handling of the Title IX proceedings, I believe its press release was an effective way to practice transparency while also honoring the involved students’ rights protected under FERPA.
Others, such as the University of Oregon, have found the managing of these rights to be much more difficult, as a campus rape allegation led to one student’s mental health records being accessed under FERPA, something her therapist took issue with:
She felt the school was forcing her to violate her professional ethics… Under FERPA, at a health clinic run by a university or college, the school has a legal right to get access to student medical records — if they’re relevant for a legal defense. That may come as a surprise to anyone who assumes that doctor-patient privilege is the same regardless of where the care is received (Foden-Vencil, 2015).
In journalism, this balance can be just as difficult, and the authors of Media Ethics propose a working standard for coverage of these situations:
Rather than emphasizing a public “right” to know, journalists are on more solid ethical ground by assessing whether personal information would serve a “need” to know. Acts by the media that infringe on that space … must be justified that a broader, vital public interest is being served (Plaisance, 2009).
There are no black-and-white rules to apply in the issue of transparency vs. privacy. In most cases, Aristotle’s mean should be applied to take the benefits of each position into account.
An open letter to the Florida State University community. (2014, October 10). Retrieved from https://unicomm.fsu.edu/statements/an-open-letter-to-the-florida-state-univeristy-community/
Foden-Vencil, K. (2015, March 10). College Rape Case Shows A Key Limit To Medical Privacy Law. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/09/391876192/college-rape-case-shows-a-key-limit-to-medical-privacy-law
Kingkade, T. (2016, February 1). Why Colleges Hide Behind This One Privacy Law All The Time. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/colleges-hide-behind-ferpa_us_56a7dd34e4b0b87beec65dda
Shepherd, S. (2016, January 27). KU response to newspaper’s records appeal reveals little more about fraternity hazing. Retrieved from http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2016/jan/27/kus-response-newspaper-records-appeal-reveals-litt/
Vaughan, K. (2014, October 10). Police, FSU hampered Jameis Winston investigation. Retrieved from http://www.foxsports.com/college-football/story/jameis-winston-florida-state-tallahassee-police-hindered-investigation-documents-101014