Court Rules Privacy Law Can't Be Used to Sue Schools

Students cannot use a federal privacy law to sue schools that divulge their personal information, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday. 

The 7-2 decision protects public and private schools and universities from costly court judgments for breaking the law requiring them to keep educational records secret. 

The main punishment is the threat of loss of federal money, the court said in siding with a college accused of leaking unproven date rape accusations. 

The court's ruling is a defeat for parents and privacy advocates who contend the law can be ignored with little consequences. 

The decision could affect lawsuits not just under the education privacy statute but many other laws that do not explicitly say violators can be sued. 

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said the privacy act gives "no specific, individually enforceable rights." 

This case pitted administrators of a private Jesuit college in Washington state against a student who claimed his hopes of becoming a teacher were ruined by the allegations he sexually assaulted a fellow student. 

A jury ordered Gonzaga University to pay Ru Paster $450,000 for violating the privacy law by releasing details of the allegation to the state education department, which was considering giving him a teaching certificate. 

The Supreme Court said that Paster was entitled to nothing under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act because the 1974 law does not say anything about private lawsuits for violations. 

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the ruling gives few options to people who are wronged under this law -- and probably many others. 

The law gives parents or adult students 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. 

Paster graduated from the Spokane, Wash., college in 1994 but claims he could not get the teaching job he wanted because of the allegation he stalked and sexually assaulted the student. The allegations came to the school thirdhand, and the alleged victim denied them. 

The federal law covers information like race, religion, grades, courses taken, attendance and disciplinary actions. The information is generally available only if a student allows access. 

Justices Stephen Breyer and David H. Souter, in a separate opinion, said they agreed that the lawsuit should not be allowed and criticized the privacy law as vague. Its language "leaves schools uncertain as to just when they can, or cannot, reveal various kinds of information," Breyer wrote. 

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the common schoolroom practice of having one student grade another's paper does not violate the same law. Justices used this case to settle whether people who feel the law has been violated have the right to sue. 

Daniel J. Solove, a professor at Seton Hall Law School said the punishment schools face for violations is limited. 

"If someone brings a complaint, it's investigated. The settlements are really just, 'sin no more.' They've got to play nice, but that's about it," he said. 

The court's decision does not stop students from filing lawsuits on other grounds. For example, Paster also accused the school of defamation, invasion of privacy, negligence, and breach of contract. He won about $600,000 on those claims which are not being contested in this case. 

Thursday's decision overturns a decision by the Washington State Supreme Court in Paster's favor. 

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