ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Appeals Tuesday sought to determine whether the University of Maryland’s records of on- campus parking violations should be made public like law enforcement records or kept private like educational data.
The court heard arguments on both sides of the issue during an appeal by the Maryland attorney general’s office of a Prince George’s County Circuit Court ruling that The Diamondback, a campus newspaper, be given access to the records. The university seeks to keep private parking ticket information and some other forms of student records.
The Diamondback took the school to court to obtain records of parking violations by members of the Maryland basketball team and its coach.
The paper also wanted to see correspondence between the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association about the suspension of basketball player Duane Simpkins. Simpkins was benched for three games during his senior season after taking a loan from a former coach to help pay $8,000 in parking fines.
Assistant Attorney General Dawna Cobb argued that the records are not law enforcement information, and therefore are subject to privacy protection under the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.
Cobb said that the university maintains its own system for enforcing on-campus rules on everything from parking tickets to sexual assault, and therefore is not part of the state legal system. The school set up its system in part to address the unique nature of on-campus offenders, for whom privacy is a particularly important issue, she said.
“Students at college are vulnerable people at a vulnerable time of life,” she said. They “have an expectation that their records will be considered private.”
Judge Alan Wilner countered that the federal privacy act was intended to make more information available to students and their families, not to keep records from the press or the public.
“The policy that Congress has chosen is not to prohibit schools from giving out that type of information,” he said.
Lee Levine, an attorney for The Diamondback, added that, because the University’s authority to enforce parking regulations comes from the state, it falls into the “law enforcement” category. Parking records therefore should be made public under the Maryland Public Information Act.
“The only way a law enforcement record loses its status as such is if it is used exclusively for a non-law enforcement purpose,” which is not the case with Maryland’s ticketing records, he said.
Levine added that the default judgment under the state public information law is to make records public, not to keep them under wraps.
“The Maryland Legislature…said that, when in doubt, you construe in a manner consistent with the purpose of the act, which is disclosure,” he said.
The court also grappled with the issue of whether correspondence with the NCAA can be construed as part of the school’s “educational records,” which Cobb said are exempted from disclosure under federal law.
“These records are education records because they relate to a student and are maintained by the university for purposes of compliance with NCAA eligibility rules,” read the brief filed by the attorney general’s office.
Judge Howard S. Chasanow responded that the university’s own relationship with the athletic association may cause conflicts under the federal privacy act.
“Isn’t giving out records to the NCAA just as much a violation of FERPA as giving them to the press?” he asked.
Finally, Levine requested that the court reconsider the circuit court’s ruling to deny The Diamondback compensation for legal fees.
Levine said afterward that he was encouraged by the judges’ reaction.
“I was happy that Judge Wilner made the point during the rebuttal that the trial judge had not indicated reasons for attorneys’ fees,” he said.
Cobb said she wasn’t surprised by the thorough interrogation she received by the judges, given the complexity of the federal and state laws involved in the case.
“I got exactly what I expected,” she joked.
Levine wasn’t sure how the judges would rule, but maintained a cautiously ambitious attitude. “The bench didn’t tip its hand,” he said, but “I am hopeful.” -30-