Student Parking Violations: Off-Limits or Fair to Report?

Campus crime has long been required by law and moral impetus to be publicly disclosed for potential student press coverage.  But what about parking tickets?

As Washington Post education reporter Jenna Johnson recently reported, staffers at a pair of Oklahoma university newspapers separately attempted to obtain records of student parking violations.  Both were offered general stats, but were rebuffed when they requested names and other identifying information of parking offenders.  The reason cited by school officials, five letters: FERPA.

As The Oklahoman revealed, “Officials at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University said parking tickets issued to students fall under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that requires schools to keep secret students’ education records.”

One attorney’s response: FERPA “is directed at academic records.  It is not directed at other records such as law enforcement records.  FERPA is kind of a catch-all that universities will use when they don’t want people to know what they are doing.”

My take: There are many, many possible stories that might be gleaned from a thorough glimpse at these records- exposing the student-athlete with an above-the-law attitude who regularly parks illegally without care; talking with the aggrieved freshmen whose park-jobs were ticketed during orientation weekend when confusion reigned about what lots were open; a profile of the worst student parker who has racked up hundreds of dollars in fines; or discovering the student arrested for the stalking and slaying of a classmate had been ticketed repeatedly for parking too long near the victim’s dormitory.

While illegal parking is of course uber-low on the criminal scale, it is a crime nonetheless. Obviously great care must be taken when reporting on these records. For example, it would be egregious to print a multi-page listing of every parking offender each semester or to unfairly use the information without context (such as “Professor Stevens, recently denied tenure over charges of irrational behavior, earned two parking tickets in July…”).

Yet, student journalists are trusted with sensitive information daily. Parking violations will not suddenly start an unethical free-for-all, and they should not be an administrative concern. Crying FERPA just seems foul- overly cautious and valuing secrecy over the truth.

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