A former online editor of The Oklahoma Daily student newspaper is suing the University of Oklahoma to gain access to student parking ticket records.
Joey Stipek, an OU senior, filed the lawsuit against university president David Boren and Open Records Office director Rachel McCombs. The suit alleges the school has repeatedly, and illegally, rebuffed his efforts to acquire “records he believes are public” — and potentially newsworthy.
As he wrote in March, “OU gave out almost 52,000 parking citations last year, then dismissed almost a third of them. But you won’t find out here whether athletes, student leaders, faculty or any other special interest group got special treatment. The reason? OU won’t release the records.”
Why the lawsuit specifically? Stipek’s attorney Nick Harrison, also a former OU Daily staffer, tells the Student Press Law Center it is partially to keep the university honest. In his words, “Administrators try to sit and wait it out until students graduate or lose interest. They don’t think they have to follow the law.”
The university is citing FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) — a law protecting student privacy — as the backbone behind its decision to not release the ticket records.
In a letter to the Daily this spring, the school’s director of parking and transportation services noted “the university has provided information on locations of tickets given and statistics regarding the numbers of tickets issued … [as well as] information related to any non-student ticket recipient, including faculty, staff or university guests to whom the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not apply.” (Stipek denies the latter claim in his lawsuit, saying the university told him it did not possess “the technological capabilities” to separate students from non-students in its tickets database.)
Bottom line, for now, from OU’s view: Student tickets are exempt from public scrutiny.
How truly private are parking tickets though, given their actual targets and method of distribution?
In March, SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte told the Daily, “Tickets are issued to cars, not people. The ticket is not a record belonging to and directly relating to the student … A parking ticket is left stuck on the window of a car where passing pedestrians can look at it. Would the college put your report card underneath your windshield wiper, or a copy of your transcript?”
At least one superior court judge in North Carolina also finds the FERPA foundation shaky when it comes to student parking violations. In a spring 2011 ruling related to a parking tickets access lawsuit filed by student and local media outlets, judge Howard Manning voiced his support for transparency. As he wrote at the time, “FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view.”
As the editorial board explained in an editorial in November, “The average citizen won’t often check a committee’s minutes or a politician’s phone records, but these freedoms allow the press to do it for you and to engage in the reporting that uncovers and stops abuses of power … So from now on, we’ll be watching. We’ll be filing more requests for access to significant records so we can fulfill our role by give you the information you need to intelligently wield your political power.”
The most recent request submitted by the paper is for a rundown of all lawsuits filed against university leadership in the past five years. The stated rationale is “to get a better perspective on what this most recent lawsuit means for OU.”
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