Iowa Supreme Court rules in favor of UI in records request lawsuit

BY ALY BROWN | JULY 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Iowa Supreme Court on July 13 ruled that the University of Iowa is not obligated to turn over student records to the Iowa City Press-Citizen related to a 2007 sexual-assault investigation.

The court ruled 4-3 that the university does not need to hand over student records to the newspaper, after the UI had been forced to hand more than hundreds of other documents following the lawsuit.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said university officials are satisfied with the decision.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court agreed with our position regarding the importance of protecting the privacy of our students," he said on Sunday evening.

The Press-Citizen filed an open-records request following an investigation into the sexual assault of a female student athlete by two then-Hawkeye football players in 2007, requesting sexual-assault reports and correspondence or documents related to any such incidents.

Abe Satterfield was originally charged with second- and third-degree sexual abuse and assault with intent to inflict serious injury; he pleaded guilty to the non-sexual charge as part of a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against former teammate Cedric Everson. Prosecutors said Satterfield did not end up providing the testimony he promised in 2011, but they did not pursue further action.

Everson was convicted of misdemeanor assault, the least serious charge possible, in 2011.

The university's response to the assault resulted in the 2008 firings of two top UI administrators who later sued the school for wrongful termination.

Former General Counsel Marcus Mills and Phillip Jones, a former UI vice president for Student Services, separately sued the UI, UI President Sally Mason, and the state Board of Regents alleging defamation and wrongful termination. Jones' lawsuit was dismissed in February, but Mills' federal court case is set for trial in December.

The Press-Citizen filed a lawsuit after the UI claimed certain records were excluded from the investigation.

The university originally produced 18 pages of documents, claiming student records were exempt from the request, according to the decision. The Press-Citizen filed a lawsuit seeking judicial enforcement of the Open Records Act in January 2008, forcing the university to release approximately 950 additional pages of documents and created a Vaughn index of more than 3,000 more, according to the decision.

The district court ruled in the Press-Citizen's favor in 2009, directing the disclosure of documents "not protected as confidential and … subject to disclosure … without redaction and documents" and those "subject to disclosure … with appropriate redactions made to remove student-identifying information including students' names, parents' names, addresses including email addresses of students, dormitory and room numbers," according to the ruling.

UI officials resisted and appealed the decision. University officials claimed the remaining documents in the investigation were protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the school could lose the ability to apply for federal funding if officials made the records public, according to the ruling.

The Press-Citizen countered that the Opens Record Act supersedes the privacy act, but the court ruled that a provision in the act suspends the request if it could cause a state agency to lose federal funding.

According to the decision, the justices were required "to decide where disclosure ends and where confidentiality begins under the Iowa Open Records Act and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act."

The court reversed the judgment of the district court requiring the release of remaining documents. UI officials did not challenge the award of $30,500 in attorney fees to the Press-Citizen from 2009.

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