WASHINGTON In a ruling applauded by press advocates, the Supreme Court yesterday barred students from using federal privacy law to sue schools that divulge their personal information.
The 7-2 decision in Gonzaga University v. John Doe sets up a firewall that protects public and private schools and universities from costly court judgments for breaking the law that requires them to keep educational records secret.
Under the law, the main punishment is the threat of loss of federal money, justices said in siding with a college accused of leaking unproven date-rape accusations.
The high court's ruling is a defeat for parents and privacy advocates who contend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act can be ignored with few consequences.
"Today's decision makes sense only if Congress intended to enact a law that could not be enforced," said Steven Shapiro, national legal director of ACLU. "It's unrealistic to expect the federal government to cut off federal funding in these cases, yet that's the only remedy that the court recognizes," he said. "So you're left with a situation in which Congress passed FERPA to protect student-privacy rights, and the court has now left students with no way to protect those rights."
Press advocates say the decision is good news for journalists. If the high court had ruled against the university, many colleges might have restricted access to information out of fear of litigation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in a news release yesterday.
"The Reporters Committee believes strongly in defending civil rights," said Lucy A. Dalglish, the group's executive director. "However, extending civil rights protection to a law that governs the release of information would have limited the ability of reporters, particularly student reporters, to cover stories of major importance, particularly when a crime has been committed on a campus."
Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the ruling will prevent minor lawsuits that would be "costly and not a very effective way to protect individuals and protect overall privacy."
The decision could affect lawsuits not just under the education privacy statute but many other laws that do not explicitly say violators can be sued.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said the privacy act gives "no specific, individually enforceable rights."
This case pitted administrators of a private Jesuit college in Washington state against a student who claimed his hopes of becoming a teacher were ruined by the allegations he sexually assaulted a fellow student.
A jury ordered Gonzaga University to pay Ru Paster $450,000 for violating the privacy law by releasing details of the allegation to the state education department, which was considering giving him a teaching certificate.
The Supreme Court said that Paster was entitled to nothing under FERPA because the 1974 law does not say anything about private lawsuits for violations, thereby leaving it up to the Education Department to punish a school by stripping its federal funding.
"We are delighted at the outcome. We think it's a very fair outcome," Gonzaga corporation counsel Mike Casey said. "The U.S. Supreme Court has vindicated our position that such matters are remedied at the Department of Education, not in the courts, federal or state."
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the ruling gives few options to people who are wronged under this law and probably many other laws.
The privacy law gives parents or adult students veto power over release of school records, and denies federal funding to schools that have a "policy or practice" of releasing information to unauthorized outsiders. It applies to any school, from kindergarten through graduate school, that receives federal money.
The law covers information like race, religion, grades, courses taken, attendance and disciplinary actions. The information is generally available only if a student allows access.
Justices Stephen Breyer and David H. Souter, in a separate opinion, said they agreed that the lawsuit should not be allowed. They said the privacy law was vague and "leaves schools uncertain as to just when they can, or cannot, reveal various kinds of information."
Paster graduated from the Spokane, Wash., college in 1994 but claims he could not get the teaching job he wanted because of the allegation he stalked and sexually assaulted the student. The allegations came to the school thirdhand, and the alleged victim denied them.
The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the common schoolroom practice of having one student grade another's paper does not violate the same law. Justices used this case to settle whether people who feel the law has been violated have the right to sue.
Daniel J. Solove, a professor at Seton Hall Law School said the punishment schools face for violations is limited.
"If someone brings a complaint, it's investigated. The settlements are really just, 'sin no more.' They've got to play nice, but that's about it," he said.
The high court's decision does not stop students from filing lawsuits on other grounds. For example, Paster also accused the school of defamation, invasion of privacy, negligence, and breach of contract. He won about $600,000 on those claims, which are not being contested in this case.
Yesterday's decision overturns a decision by the Washington State Supreme Court in Paster's favor.