A Florida Court Allows a College Professor to Learn the Name of a Student Who Lodged a Complaint Against Him: Was This the Right Result?

Posted in: Education

On July 19th, a Florida appellate court ruled in favor of an adjunct associate professor at Florida-based Santa Fe College, Darnell Rhea, who sought to learn the identity of a student who had complained about Rhea’s classroom performance.

Records relating to students are confidential under the federal Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), better known as the Buckley Amendment, and under Florida law. However, the Florida court held that the complaint at issue was essentially related to Rhea, the professor, as he was the subject of the complaint, and not related to the student who complained about him, and therefore also held that the complainer’s identity need not be protected as confidential.

Thus, the Florida court concluded that the complaint was not a student record, but rather a teacher record.  Accordingly, the court ruled that Rhea could see the entire student complaint, including the name of the student who had lodged it, which has now been provided to him.

In this column, I’ll explain the basis for the ruling, and I will suggest that a different legal framework than the one that is currently in place would better ensure fairness in student/teacher clashes like this one.

The Facts of the Case

In this case, the student’s complaint had been made by email, but the student’s name was then redacted from the email printout to protect the student’s privacy.  In the email, the student claimed that Rhea made humiliating remarks to students and employed unorthodox teaching methodologies; it also faulted him for his classroom behavior.  Rhea denied all three of these allegations.

Rhea said that he sought the complaining student’s name in order to ascertain whether the student was even in a position to comment fairly and accurately on Rhea’s teaching methods and classroom conduct in the first place.  (The Associated Press reported that, more specifically, Rhea suspected that the student who had complained about him had attended only a single one of Rhea’s classes.)

Rhea also claimed that internal college procedures gave him the right to discuss student complaints before his supervisor heard or saw them, but said that that didn’t happen in his case.  In addition, he claimed that the reason the college declined to rehire him was the very student complaint as to which he was not allowed to see the student’s name.  The college, however, says that that was not the reason that Rhea was not re-hired.

The Relevant Federal and Florida Law

Florida’s constitution and statutes provide for a right of access to public records, with email clearly included, and the community college where Rhea taught was a public college.  Moreover, it turns out that Florida’s definition of  “education records” is the same as FERPA’s, when it comes to determining if a particular record, such as the email at issue in this case, is an “education record,” and thus is exempt from disclosure.

Thus, the key test in this case was whether the record at issue—that is, the student’s email complaint—was “directly related to a student,” and therefore could not be disclosed.

The Florida court in this case held that the email concerning Rhea, after it was redacted to omit the student’s name, was no longer “directly related to a student,” and thus was no longer a protected “education record.”  Santa Fe College claimed, however, that the unredacted email, which did reveal the student’s name, was a protected education record.

However, the Florida court noted, to the contrary, a line of related precedent under FERPA that categorizes certain records as being tangentially—not directly—related to a student, and thus able to be disclosed without redaction.  The Florida court concluded that the email Rhea sought fell into this category of being only tangentially related to a student, because the main subject of the email was Rhea, the teacher, and not the student who wrote the email.  In so reasoning, the Florida court borrowed the logic of that line of similar FERPA cases from other state courts that had earlier addressed the tangentially/directly issue.

Accordingly, Rhea gained the right to receive the unredacted email, and thus to finally learn which student had complained about his teaching.  (The other issues in the case are moot, however, as both Rhea and the student have left the college.)

Although I agree with the court’s result here, I question its logic in getting there. The only reason that Rhea ultimately received an unredacted version of the student’s email is that the court deemed the student’s complaint to be directly about the teacher, and only tangentially about the student, whose privacy rights were therefore deemed minimal enough to allow disclosure. But one could just as easily say that the complaint was equally about both the student and the teacher—about the student’s dissatisfaction with the teacher’s instruction, and about the teacher’s method of teaching.

After all, there wouldn’t have been a conflict had there not been two sides to the story.  Thus, to leave the student out of the equation seems bizarre, as he or she was the very one who wrote the complaint and caused the conflict in the first place.  But, ironically, leaving the student’s real role, as accuser, out was the only way, under the law, to ensure that the student’s name would be revealed and justice could be done.

A Strange Kind of Privacy, and An Alternative Approach

Another notable aspect of this case is that the kind of “privacy” that is being invoked is quite unusual.  Usually, the reason for privacy rights is to protect personal (including, especially, sexual and/or medical) information.  Pure educational information—information about grades and the like—is a very poor fit for that kind of privacy model, as there is nothing inherently personal or private about it.

Of course, there is no question that many people will want their grades kept private, but the question is whether there is any real basis for doing so.  I think that we should be cautious about overprotecting student information—particularly when public, not private, colleges and universities are at issue, as was the case here—since the case for its privacy is thin at best, and, at worse, nonexistent.

Moreover, and more to the point, it seems especially questionable to cite student privacy when the student is making an accusation about a professor (other than perhaps in the sexual harassment context, or with regard to sex crimes, where core privacy concerns may pertain).  No wonder, then, that Rhea, who represented himself throughout the litigation, told a reporter, “To me, it’s just un-American that you don’t have right to know who your accuser is.”

I think Rhea is right: There is a strong argument to be made that a student’s right to educational privacy—or at least the student’s right to privacy regarding his or her identity—should simply be waived when he or she has made an accusation against a professor.  It’s impossible to protect due process or basic fairness when one party to a dispute may remain anonymous, and the other may not.

Posted in: Education, Privacy