Supreme Court considers student privacy rights in Gonzaga case

By Anne Gearan

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Ru Paster wants his good name back. Falsely accused of date rape, he also wants to collect $450,000 from university officials who released details of the allegation to a potential employer.

The Supreme Court heard Paster’s story Wednesday and is expected to use it to clarify the rights of students or parents to enforce federal privacy law. The Bush administration has sided with Gonzaga University, which admits it should not have released Paster’s records but maintains Paster cannot collect the money.

“This ruined his career,” argued Paster’s lawyer, Beth Brinkmann.

Paster graduated from the Spokane, Wash., school in 1994 but could not get the teaching job he wanted. University officials told him they could not give him a character recommendation he needed for a teaching certificate because of allegations that he stalked and assaulted a fellow student.

The school had passed the allegations on to state authorities in Washington, where Paster otherwise could have applied for a job.

The rape allegations came to the school thirdhand, and the alleged victim denied them.

Paster sued, charging that sharing the allegations without his consent violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The 1974 federal law gives parents and adult students such as Paster 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.

A jury ordered the Jesuit college to pay Paster $1.1 million for defamation and other claims, including violations of the federal act. He has collected about $600,000 for the claims not connected to the federal law, and would be able to collect the balance if he wins at the Supreme Court.

Paster attended Wednesday’s argument, but did not comment afterward. Now in his early 30s, he still wants to teach and has not settled on another career, his lawyer said.

The issue for the Supreme Court is whether Paster can sue to enforce the privacy law. The university and the Bush administration argued that Congress never intended to give individuals that right, which they claim would clog the courts with petty lawsuits.

The wording of the law makes the secretary of education responsible for enforcement, lawyer John G. Roberts Jr. argued for Gonzaga.

“It says ‘FERPA is your problem.’ There’s no suggestion that private (complaints) would be dealt with in court,” Roberts told the court.

Paster’s lawyer countered that other courts have upheld an individual’s right to sue under the law, and there has been no flood of lawsuits during the more than 25 years it has been on the books.

“This is a paradigm example of what (Congress was) worried about,” Brinkmann argued. “Gossip, things that are unsubstantiated that could ruin someone’s career.”

Several justices seemed to disagree.

“It seems to me just a statute (governing) when federal money is going to be given to a school, and the remedy is the withholding of funds,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “I don’t see how you can extrapolate from that a private right,” to sue.

The court ruled earlier this year that the common schoolroom practice of having one student grade another’s paper does not violate the same federal law. In considering that case, the court assumed that the family at the heart of the case did have the right to sue. The court then agreed to hear the Gonzaga case to settle the matter.

The federal law divides student information into two broad categories: directory information such as name and address, and everything else.

The second category includes race, religion, grades, courses taken, attendance and disciplinary actions. This is restricted information, generally available only if a student allows access.

Congress has carved out exceptions, including one allowing parental notification if a student is disciplined for alcohol use.

The case is Gonzaga University v. John Doe, 01-679.

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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