In a 4-3 decision that took nearly two years to reach, the court agreed with the university that it can withhold the records requested by the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper. Otherwise, the school would face the possibility of violating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act and, if sanctioned, could lose millions in federal funds, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for the majority, in a first-of-its-kind ruling in Iowa.
He said the state's open records law carves out an exception for universities and schools because FERPA prohibits institutions from releasing education records that contain information that identifies students. Releasing the records with redactions to protect the students' identities is not an option in this case because the newspaper and the public already know the names of those involved, Mansfield said.
Dissenting Justice Brent Appel said the records should be made public under Iowa law. He said a court order requiring the records to be released would not violate FERPA, which only sanctions schools that have a "policy or practice" or releasing confidential student information.
The decision is a setback to advocates of open government, who say that universities nationwide are increasingly citing FERPA to shield their internal operations from public scrutiny.
A coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief backing the Press-Citizen, arguing that information about the handling of crimes on college campuses should be accessible. Allowing schools to withhold records if they believe the requesters may know the identities of students involved could "discriminate against those granted public information and outright chill some persons from exercising their rights to inspect public records," lawyers for the media groups wrote.
The case stems from the assault of a female athlete by two football players, Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson, in a university dorm room in October 2007. Prosecutors alleged that the men took turns sexually assaulting the woman who had passed out after a night of partying. Both were suspended from the team and later transferred. Satterfield pleaded guilty to assault with intent to inflict serious injury but testified the sex was consensual. A jury last year rejected sexual assault charges against Everson but found him guilty of misdemeanour assault.
Iowa's response came under scrutiny when the woman's mother alleged university officials were insensitive and that the athletics department had sought to cover up the assault by handling the matter internally.
An investigation by an outside law firm in 2008 found the university responded ineffectively because some administrators showed poor judgment but found no evidence of a coverup. It blamed the dean of students for failing to take action to help the woman and her family and the university's general counsel for earlier failing to turn over records to a Board of Regents investigator. Iowa President Sally Mason fired both officials, who dispute the findings and are pursuing lawsuits alleging wrongful termination.
The Press-Citizen had filed several requests under Iowa's public records law seeking documents about the assault, including correspondence among university officials. The university initially released 18 pages that had no information specific to the incident, and the newspaper filed its lawsuit seeking to force more disclosure.
The university released 950 more pages during the litigation, and District Judge Douglas Russell in 2009 ordered the release of hundreds more records in their entirety or with redactions. Russell also found the university violated the public records law and should pay $30,000 to cover the newspaper's legal fees. The university appealed, seeking to prevent the release of all records that were to be redacted and some that were to be released in full.
A number of other records were not the subject of the appeal and will be made public shortly, university spokesman Tom Moore said.
"The university is pleased that the court agreed with our stance about the importance of protecting the privacy of our students," he said.
Tricia Brown, senior editor of the newspaper, said she was disappointed in the ruling but also pleased the lawsuit had forced the university to release additional records.
"The university made a lot of changes in light of this case with their administration and their policies. Had no one pushed to see these documents, those changes may never have happened," she said.