NORMAN — “The lawsuit is the last thing we wanted to do. If they said they would give us the records now, we would settle out of court. I’d drop the lawsuit.”
Those were the words of University of Oklahoma student Joey Stipek earlier this week, talking about the lawsuit he filed against the university’s president, David Boren.
Stipek, also the former online editor of The Oklahoma Daily, filed a lawsuit in May after the university refused to release parking citation information for him and other student newspaper employees.
The students were told the information was protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and are exempt from disclosure under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Stipek said when they were requesting the information during one project, they requested it from several different Oklahoma colleges. Parking tickets for the school president, an athletic coach and a journalism professor were requested at many of the schools.
“They’re all state employees,” he said.
The students made their requests at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, University of Central Oklahoma, Oklahoma Christian University and Oklahoma City Community College.
At OU, Stipek said he received an email saying they would be happy to turn over any parking tickets and gave them a journalism professor’s. Stipek was told Boren and football coach Bob Stoops didn’t have any tickets.
At OSU, he said they only received the information requested for football coach Mike Gundy. At OCU, no information was given to them as they cited FERPA and the Oklahoma Records Act. At UCO, he said they could not turn the records over due to “confidentiality reasons,” not citing FERPA or the Open Records Act.
All parking citation information was made available at OCCC. Stipek said the community college told him those records are not FERPA records and as long as he had media credentials, he could go in and inspect the parking citations.
“This one college, where there’s none of these special interests, said these (records) aren’t protected by FERPA,” he said.
Stipek said he doesn’t want people to think he’s out to get Bob Stoops, but he does want to know if people are receiving special treatment.
“Another misconception about this is that we’re targeting athletes, specifically football players, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” he said.
Stipek said he was told by other students and OU employees that student government and VIP administrators were the ones receiving special treatment.
“I feel like Open Records requests just means that you’re participating in informed citizenry, and that’s a good thing — asking questions and wondering where your money goes and who’s receiving special treatment,” Stipek said, adding apparently the OU community disagrees.
Boren said they are complying with federal law when they do not turn over information relating to students.
“I personally am sympathetic with releasing all parking ticket information. The university already releases information in regard to myself and other individual officers, faculty and staff of the university,” Boren said. “We are required to comply with federal law, which prohibits us from releasing information of this kind which relates to students.”
The university has said before that since the records are directly related to a student and maintained by the university, they can’t be disclosed under FERPA. This sets them apart from law enforcement records, which are required to be disclosed to the public, university officials said. In addition, the ticketing system is an administrative function, not a criminal one.
University officials also said they already have provided parking ticket information about Boren and other university officials.
Boren added that if the federal law is changed either by congressional or judicial action, the university would comply with the law.
Stipek said the whole case is built on precedence. There have been judges in North Carolina and Maryland rule that the same records are not protected by FERPA, he said.
“It’s not some Harry Potter invisibility cloak,” he said. “Personally, if I were a taxpayer, I’d be kind of embarrassed of their citing of this law for these things when there’s enough legal precedence that proves otherwise.”
Stipek said he hopes other students feel inspired by his actions and will want to get involved in Open Records and “ask the hard questions that are part of the fabric of journalism.”
“That was the big reason why I did the project. Hopefully someone will take notice at OU and be inspired and follow my lead,” he said.
As for the lawsuit, Stipek is awaiting his Aug. 26 court date over the matter in Cleveland County District Court.