What exactly is 'directory information'?
Directory information, the information that Department of Education regulations have said may be released to the public without the student’s prior approval, includes (but is not limited to) items such as the name, address, phone number, date and location of birth, field of study, degrees and awards received, and the height and weight of athletic team members. Schools must also give students a chance to restrict public access to even these facts if the student wishes. The difference between this information and other school records is that “directory information” is assumed to be available to the public until the student chooses otherwise. The release of any other school records must be explicitly approved by either the student or their parents.
Why would the news media want or need personal information about individual students or incidents?
Particularly in situations involving illegal or unethical behavior, the press takes seriously its responsibility to keep the public informed. People want and need to know what is happening on public campuses, especially if they have children attending school or thinking of doing so. As with any important story, reporters will want to learn as much about the people involved or suspected of being involved so that they can assemble the uncontested facts into an accurate picture of the situation. This goal would be served by having access to some of the records protected by FERPA because the information would help the reporters to understand that situation and the individuals who might be involved. Without access to the government-controlled educational records, pieces are left out of the puzzle.
May a student sue a private university for damages under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA)?
This question was the issue in the Supreme Court case Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002). In the 7-2 ruling, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority that a student may not sue a private university for damages under any provision of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Gonzaga University v. Doe involved a student, John Doe, who intended to apply to become a teacher upon graduating from Gonzaga. In order to become a public school teacher in Washington state, an individual must file an affidavit of good moral character from his or her graduating university. But a Gonzaga teacher-certification specialist overheard another student describing sexual misconduct by Doe, the student who became the plaintiff in this lawsuit. The specialist contacted the Washington state agency responsible for teacher certification, identified Doe and discussed the allegations of sexual misconduct. Subsequently, Doe, who had no knowledge of the investigation at the time, was denied the certification affidavit. Doe sued Gonzaga University on the grounds of a FERPA violation. The trial court awarded Doe both compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, the Washington Court of Appeals held that FERPA does not create enforceable rights under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The Washington Supreme Court expanded on the appeals court's ruling, reasoning that although FERPA does not give rise to private causes of action, its non-disclosure provision does create an enforceable right under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Washington Supreme Court and held that students and parents may not sue for damages under FERPA because FERPA’s nondisclosure provisions “contain no rights-creating language … they serve primarily to direct the Secretary of Education’s distribution of public funds to educate institutions.”