ORLANDO – The University of Central Florida (UCF) has been ordered by the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida to release documents pertaining to the UCF Activity and Service budget.
Arguing for the release of the information was Knight News Inc. Its site, KnightNews.com, while not officially affiliated with UCF, remains the only complete, student-run independent news outlet covering UCF. The university had an official student-run newspaper, The Future, but it ceased publication in August and had no ties with the case.
Knight News was particularly interested in the records to see who in the UCF Student Government Association had access to, and spending power over, the UCF Activity and Service budget. This was a list of interest because all of the students pay into this fund as part of their tuition package. UCF is the second-largest university enrollment-wise in the United States.
“I think this ruling further reiterates the rights student journalists have to this kind of information," Kelley Callaway, the president of the College Media Association and the director of student publications at Rice University, told The Florida Record.
UCF argued that the information being requested fell under the national Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and if it was to violate that act, it would be liable to lose federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education.
The decision, issued by Judge John E. Jordan, is the culmination of a case that saw its start in 2013. Jordan sided with the Knight News argument that the records in question do not fall under FERPA because the records in question do not deal with educational issues.
“(The ruling) shows again that colleges and universities often misuse FERPA to prevent student journalists from covering their campuses," Callaway said.
Knight News and UCF have a history in court together. This is the third lawsuit filed by Knight News against UCF since 2012. All the cases have involved the request, and subsequent denials, of several public records requests dating back to 2012. Justin Hemlepp, an attorney operating from his private firm in Tampa and working with Knight News on this case, has said that their importance cannot be overstated.
“If UCF somehow had won this or still finds a way to do so, it will force every other student government in this state at a public university or community college to shut down their records to the public, to shut down their meetings to the public and all the sudden all of these student governments will be operating in secrecy,” Hemlepp said in an April article published in the Independent Florida Alligator.
What the reach of this ruling will be remains to be seen.
“Hopefully this will make other colleges that are attempting to block student media from vital information think twice,” Callaway said.