OU denied requests for parking ticket records, but are they private by law?

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.

OU’s Open Records office and state and federal experts disagree whether student parking citations are exempt from a federal privacy law.

OU officials cite both the Oklahoma Open Records Act and The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, as reasons to withhold student parking citations.

A total of 51,987 citations were issued at OU in fiscal year 2012, with 14,258, or 27.4 percent, of those citations being dismissed.

The Daily filed an open records request in September 2012 for all student parking citations issued so far that year in an attempt to verify the fairness of the parking system. OU’s Open Records office denied the Daily’s request in September 2012 and again in December 2012, citing FERPA.

According to Daily archives, the university also cited FERPA in 2010 as justification for withholding student parking citations.

FERPA is a federal law protecting the privacy of students’ educational records, such as transcripts, social security numbers and demographic information. The law establishes students have the right to expect such records will be kept confidential unless they consent to their release.

Open Records office director Rachel McCombs said the university considers parking citations as on of these academic records protected by FERPA.

“Any record that contains information that is directly related to a student and is maintained by the university is protected by FERPA,” she said via email.

In an email from his office in Washington D.C., Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte said records covered under FERPA are those containing confidential information identifying a particular student.

“If the record is maintained in some type of central storage facility or location and directly relates or refers to the student,” he said. “The courts have been very, very clear that not every document that names or refers to a student is a FERPA record and have typically limited the reach of the statute in a common-sense way to records that have something to do with educational activity.”

The Open Records Office provided information about the number and type of violations on campus but would not provide a list of violations connected with student names. Without identifying information, it is impossible to verify that different groups of students are receiving similar treatment from the parking office.

While the university was unwilling to release student ticket information, it is willing to release faculty and administrator ticket records.

The Daily also requested citations in early December for tickets issued to President David Boren, Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops and journalism professor Christopher Krug. The paper received the parking citations for Krug in early December, as well as notification that Stoops and Boren had no tickets on their record.

ARE PARKING CITATIONS STUDENT RECORDS?

McCombs said parking citations given to students are records that relate to enrolled students and are maintained by the university.

“Thus, they are education records and are confidential under FERPA,” she said.

LoMonte said parking tickets are almost certainly not FERPA records.

“The U.S. Department of Education has never said so,” he said. “And courts in Maryland and North Carolina have said they are not.”

LoMonte said a parking ticket is not considered an education record for several reasons.

“Most importantly, because anyone can get a parking ticket, not just a student,” he said. “Tickets are issued to cars, not people. The ticket is not a record belonging to and directly relating to the student.”

LoMonte also said parking citations are not confidential because of where they’re left — in public where anyone can easily look at them.

“A parking ticket is left stuck on the window of a car where passing pedestrians can look at it,” he said. “Would the college put your report card underneath your windshield wiper, or a copy of your transcripts?”

LoMonte said if parking tickets were cited under FERPA as student records, “then someone should file a complaint with the Department of Education against the college for inadequately securing the privacy of FERPA records.”

Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor and former Freedom of Information Oklahoma president, said parking tickets in the hands of the police department are public records.

“It defies logic to say parking tickets are no longer public records in the hands of the university,” he said. “I don’t think FERPA was intended to protect parking tickets.”

Senat said parking tickets have nothing to do with a student’s education.

“Oklahomans are entitled to know what tickets are being paid, what tickets are not and if any special favor or favoritism is shown,” he said.

The records requests for parking tickets at the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina not only sparked court cases that found parking tickets were not protected under FERPA, but also turned up evidence of favoritism shown toward student-athletes.

In a telephone interview, Norman Police Department Capt. Tom Easley said citizens in Norman filing an open record request for hard copy parking tickets “probably” would have their request filled, as long as the individual is referenced in the Norman Police Department database.

“The problem with parking tickets is that they are given to automobiles, not people,” he said. “The car gets the ticket not the person.”

Easley said people could get parking tickets from the Norman municipal court. “You will get the tag, vehicle, date and time of the offense, location of the violation, nature of the offense, but not the name,” he said.

Easley said citizens could request information on an individual through a master records name check with the Norman Police Department, barring certain circumstances such as suspect information and mental health.

HOW CITATIONS ARE HANDLED

OU Parking Services spokeswoman Vicky Holland said after a parking citation is issued, it is placed in “unpaid, no-name” status until a second citation occurs.

After a second citation issued to the same vehicle, that vehicle’s tag number is sent automatically to the appropriate Department of Motor Vehicles office for identification, Holland said.

Then after the owner is identified, the citation is billed to his or her bursar’s account. If the owner does not have an account with the university, the citation and amount they owe OU are sent to their home address, she said.

McCombs said nonstudent parking ticket information is not protected by FERPA.

"Information is available,” McCombs said. "For records request for specific individuals who are nonstudents who have received tickets."

But McCombs said the university does not have the means to pull out the student information from the database and only release non-student information.

“The parking database does not distinguish between students and non-students,” she said. “We can run reports by name but not by status (student permit, employee permit, no permit).”

In an email, Parking & Transportation Services director Doug Myers said the software used to maintain the database is called T2 Flex.

Myers also said it was not possible to tell the difference between students and nonstudents in the database for parking tickets or to extract information from the database to gather information for tickets.

LEGAL PRECEDENCE

Courts in Maryland and North Carolina have found parking tickets are not considered educational records under FERPA.

In 1998, a Maryland appeals court stated in its ruling:

“(FERPA) was not intended to preclude the release of any record simply because the record contained the name of a student. The federal statute was obviously intended to keep private those aspects of a student’s educational life that relate to academic matters or status as a student.”

A North Carolina judge repeated those sentiments in 2011, “FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view while enrolled at (college).”

OU’s Open Records office has said FERPA-related court rulings in other states are not relevant to how the university applies FERPA-related policies.

McCombs defends that practice.

“Under the principle of stare decisis, a court must adhere to prior judicial opinions when they are controlling authority in that jurisdiction,” she said.

For Oklahoma state courts, controlling authority includes the Supreme Court of Oklahoma and the Supreme Court of the United States.

She said in contrast, opinions from other state courts or federal district courts are merely persuasive authority.

“Although they can be considered by Oklahoma courts when deciding an issue of federal law, Oklahoma courts are not required to reach the same interpretation,” McCombs said.

LoMonte said even though cases from Maryland and North Carolina are not legally binding in Oklahoma state courts, those rulings certainly will be looked at as informative and will be influential if a case is filed against the university.

“At some point, it becomes an act of bad faith to insist on your own interpretation of the law when there is no legal support for that interpretation and a growing consensus against it,” he said. “At the very least, you can say with 100 percent certainty that the university would be at zero risk of suffering any financial penalty for honoring a public-records request for parking tickets.”

LoMonte said the Department of Education would only penalize a college if it issues a notice that FERPA has been violated.

“The very worst thing that could happen to the university for honoring a request for these records would be a letter from the DOE telling them not to do that again in the future,” he said. “If the university is claiming that it will suffer financial penalties for fulfilling a public-records request for parking tickets, then the university’s lawyers either are misinformed or they are lying.”