The Tennessean: UT withholds emails about student athletes, citing FERPA

The Tennessean’s news director Maria DeVarenne said the University of Tennessee is stonewalling the news organization’s efforts to report on allegations of sexual assault against football players.

In a story published today, reporter Anita Wadhwani reports that the university withheld emails between administrators “that could shed light on how the university and its athletics department responded to allegations of sexual assault against student-athletes.”

The university said emails about the students are protected under the Tennessee Public Records Act and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

More from the story:

The Tennessean in November requested email messages containing the names of five current or former UT football and basketball players who may have been the subject of campus discipline for alleged sexual assaults since 2011.

The newspaper specifically requested any mention of the players in the emails of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, Athletics Director Dave Hart, football coach Butch Jones and eight other campus officials.

The university denied the request, noting in a letter this week from Matthew Scoggins, UT’s deputy general counsel, that it was legally barred from doing so by the Tennessee Public Records Act and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which outlines protections for students’ educational records.

Tennessean attorney Robb Harvey disputes that claim, noting in a letter to the university that emails involving discussions about players are not “educational records” and they are required to be produced under the state’s broad public records law.

The university’s denial of the requested emails comes as the campus faces increased scrutiny over rape allegations against UT football players.

Six players on last year’s roster have been accused of sexual assault by women ranging in age from 18 to 21.

Other requests for records by the newspaper have been met with denials or high price tags:

The university failed to provide any response to the newspaper’s requests dating to February to name the individuals who serve on UT’s athletics department’s advisory board. The board routinely met in public until January 2014, when reporters were barred from attending.

UT public relations staff declined to confirm whether individual attorneys representing players accused of misconduct, members of the Knox County District Attorneys office charged with prosecuting students or members of the Knoxville Police Department serve on university boards or committees, saying that the boards and advisory groups on the campus were too numerous to be able to accurately account for individual members. The university instead offered to confirm any information the newspaper found.

And the university has attached a high price tag on records it is willing to produce. A request by The Tennessean for all internal correspondence relating to the newspaper’s requests for information during a six-month period will cost $1,790.57, including hourly rates of $117.25, $113.14 and $107.36 for the staff to retrieve that correspondence.

Maria De Varenne, news director of The Tennessean, characterized the university’s responses to media requests as “stonewalling.”

“The Tennessean will continue to pursue information and documents related to the assaults and other incidents involving Vols football and basketball players,” De Varenne said. “The stonewalling by the administration in giving the media documents that are public records is disappointing but will not dissuade us.”

In denying The Tennessean emails about players who may have been the subjects of sexual assault accusations, UT officials argued that the privacy rights of students would be placed at risk if administrators’ emails about students were considered public records.

“As a recipient of federal funds, the University is subject to FERPA, which affords students certain rights with respect to their education records,” Scoggins wrote. If emails between administrators were not considered educational records, then “administrators could conduct almost all business about a student via email and circumvent the rights FERPA gives students,” leading to “ridiculous results,” he said.

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