Nearly three years after the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, College Park sought records of parking fines of student athletes, the state's highest court yesterday told the school it must turn them over.
In a unanimous 24-page opinion, the Court of Appeals said student basketball players' accumulated campus parking fines and correspondence between the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association on a player's disciplinary violations are not what the federal government had in mind when it said education records must be kept private.
The court also said Maryland coach Gary Williams' parking tickets were not personnel records and should be disclosed. Williams could not be reached yesterday.
The ruling was a big, though belated, victory for the newspaper, the Diamondback, which spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees on the case.
"As soon as we get the documents, the story is going to run," senior Daryl Khan, managing editor of the paper, vowed last night. "I guarantee you, reporters will be working on that story."
Whether the court's ruling is the final word remains to be seen. Justice Department lawyers obtained a federal court injunction last spring blocking Ohio State University and Miami University of Ohio from releasing the outcome of student disciplinary proceedings. The case remains unresolved.
Justice and U.S. Department of Education officials maintain that the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 requires them to keep private almost every school document containing a student's name.
Yesterday, UM officials cautioned that the federal government might intervene. Justice Department attorneys, who filed a friend-of-the court brief on the university's side, refused to comment.
One basketball player, Duane Simpkins, had racked up more than $8,000 in overdue fines and borrowed $2,000 from his former Amateur Athletic Union coach to begin paying off the fines. That enabled him to register as a student for the spring of 1996 and stay on the team, but it resulted in a three-game NCAA suspension.
With that story widely reported, the Diamondback sought parking information for his teammates under the state's Public Information Act.
Dawna Cobb, an assistant attorney general who argued the appeal for the university, said the school was not trying to hide the parking tickets, but that student financial information derived from the tickets should be private.
"I was disappointed the court didn't see it that way," she said.
Freedom of information experts hailed the decision as a check on university secrecy.
"For far too long, frankly, universities have been using FERPA [Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974] as an all-purpose exemption to the states' open-records laws. They have, like Alice in Wonderland, said the words meant what they wanted them to mean," said Jane E. Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va.
The information the Diamondback stands to receive would be stale: Of the seven basketball players whose parking fine records it sought, only senior center Obinna Ekezie is still on the team.
"This is a classic example for why Freedom of Information Acts are not as useful as they ought to be," Kirtley said, pointing to the lengthy litigation. "One has to look at this in the long term. The Diamondback can now say by virtue of having litigated and prevailed in this case, we have access to a panoply of information."
"There are lessons here for the student journalists: Perseverance pays off," said Elizabeth Koch, a lawyer for the Diamondback. "They thought there was a story here. They never gave up."
The newspaper, however, was stymied in its efforts to recoup legal fees.
"Good news, bad news," said Diamondback general manager Michael Fribush.
The Sun is a member of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Club, one of five organizations to file a brief in support of the Diamondback.
Pub Date: 12/09/98