Sharing information without consent abuse of power


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An investigation released last week by the Des Moines Register revealed that the University of Iowa has shared federally protected information about the academic records of its students with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office for more than two decades.

The program, which has been halted for the time being by the university since its existence was made public, was established to help the Sheriff’s Office do its due diligence when examining gun-permit applications filed by UI students.

But some of the information provided to the Sheriff’s Office — including grades and disciplinary histories — are strictly confidential thanks to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

When filing their gun-permit applications, students had to sign a waiver that allowed for “review and full disclosure of all records concerning myself  … to any duly authorized agent of an Iowa sheriff or the commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, whether the said records are of a public, private, or confidential nature.”

UI Deputy Counsel Nathan Levin told The Daily Iowan that he believed the waiver allowed the university to release protected documents without potential legal ramifications. Some legal experts disagree, however; they argue that the waiver is too broad to serve as a reasonable warning to applicants about exactly what information they are making available to the Sheriff’s Office.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that some kind of information-sharing program is necessary between the UI and the Sheriff’s Office, but the transmission of confidential academic information without direct consent is a misuse of power.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek penned an op-ed piece that defends the information-sharing program, saying that it was vital to his office’s ability to conduct adequate background checks for gun permits.

“We believe it is imperative to make sure we thoroughly check the background of individuals,” Pulkrabek wrote. “… Receiving information that states a student is showing bizarre behavior or grades are on a downward spiral can be beneficial but on its own might not reach a level that calls for a denial on the weapons permit.”

We sympathize with the sheriff’s desire to make background checks for gun permits as comprehensive as possible, but it is difficult to see how a student’s grades could conceivably be used to evaluate her or his fitness to own a weapon. In fact, the chapter of the Iowa Administrative Code that deals with gun-permit applications says nothing at all about academic good standing. Grades should not be released by the UI for this purpose.

It seems appropriate that the Sheriff’s Office should have access to disciplinary records, however; these records could raise legitimate concerns about applicant’s fitness for gun ownership. The process for sharing these records must be far less secretive than the current system, however.

Applicants should be warned upfront that applying for a gun permit means waiving privacy-act protections on their disciplinary files.

The controversy surrounding this issue demonstrates the fundamental tension between safety and privacy. We believe that it is important, wherever possible, to maintain each as fully we can. Sometimes, though, safety comes at the expense of privacy and vice versa.

In this case, we have to accept some degree of infringement upon our privacy. We cannot reasonably expect to have a strong system of background checks for gun permits without also expecting to make a great deal of our own personal information available to law enforcement. This is an unfortunate, but necessary, tradeoff.

We believe that the UI should continue to share information about students who apply for gun permits with the Sheriff’s Office on two conditions. First, applicants should explicitly consent to the release of some privacy-act-protected information; second, grades should be kept under wraps.

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