UM paper fights school over parking records Court of Appeals to say if Diamondback can have access

October 01, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

The Diamondback, the University of Maryland's student newspaper, went looking for basketball stars who might have racked up thousands of dollars in parking fines and ran into a brick wall with university officials.

Now, the paper's staff is hoping the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, will force the university to give up parking fine records for basketball team members in what could be a watershed case on student records.

The arguments, scheduled Oct. 7 in Annapolis, have attracted the attention of five national journalism organizations that have filed briefs in support of the newspaper, as well as the U.S. Department of Education and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which support the university's position.

The case centers on Duane Simpkins, a guard on the Terps' basketball squad who tallied $8,242 in parking fines during his four years at College Park. Simpkins was suspended for three games in early 1996 for accepting a $2,000 loan from a former coach so he could make a down payment on the fines, a violation of NCAA rules.

Simpkins could not register for school -- or be eligible to play -- without arranging to pay the fines.

The suspension received widespread publicity and Diamondback editors, wondering who else might have such problems, sought parking fine records for other basketball team members and the university's report to the NCAA on Simpkins.

The university refused, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, called FERPA, which forbids the release of student financial records.

But the Diamondback said student financial information about parking tickets is not covered under FERPA because it not really an educational record. It is information relating to a crime.

"For them to try to hide behind the privacy issue of the student is outrageous. The onlyentity they are trying to protect is themselves," said Jane E. Kirtley, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, among the journalism groups supporting the Diamondback.

The information would show how the university views its responsibility to students it is supposed to help nudge into adult responsibility and whether some people get coddled more than others, she said.

"We want to know what the situation is," added Danielle Newman, editor-in-chief of the Diamondback. "Everyone has a question in their minds -- is there anything there?"

On a campus where 50,000 people vie for a fraction of that number of parking spaces, tickets are an issue close to many students' hearts and wallets, a unifying subject for faculty, students, alumni, anyone who has set tires on the campus.

The Diamondback sued for access to the records in Prince George's County Circuit Court under the state Public Information Act and won. The university asked the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's intermediate appel- late court, to review the decision and the Court of Appeals took over.

Michael Fribush, the Diamondback's general manager who has been with the paper for 25 years, said this is the first time he knows of that the paper has taken a quest for information so far. He would not disclose what the court battle has cost.

The university concedes that tickets, which are issued to license plates, are public, but argues that the information it compiles to collect on those tickets is not.

"A document sent to the university's bursar's office for the purpose of posting it on a student's financial record is not a crime record," said Dawna M. Cobb, the assistant attorney general who will argue the case for the school.

The school tracks license plates that have large numbers of tickets on them to find students. Students who amass more than $500 in outstanding fines are barred from registering for school until they make arrangements to settle the bill. They cannot receive degrees until all fines are paid.

To university officials, the possibility that Maryland's Public Information Act would allow opening financial records for students who attend a public university, but not cover a private one, makes no sense.

To Diamondback reporters and editors, the allure of the university's report to the NCAA is its excruciating detail.

The reports "have the whole chain of events," said David Murray, the former Diamondback sports editor who sought the information more than a year ago. "It's better than charging documents," he said, referring to the police paperwork that typically includes just enough vague wording to get an arrest warrant.

The NCAA, in its brief, says it relies on schools to report student athlete violations themselves, knowing the information is confidential. If they suspect they will be "tarred and feathered in the press" they may not come forward, the NCAA lawyers wrote.

The Diamondback argues that relying on self-reporting of violations is a reason for greater, not less, public scrutiny.

This case no longer attracts attention on campus, students and administrators say, though a Court of Appeals ruling would revive it.

"That's just ridiculous to bring this up again now," Gary Williams, the basketball coach, said last week. "There are kids all over the place getting arrested for serious things and you guys are worried about parking tickets?"

The Baltimore Sun is a member of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Club, one of five organizations to file a brief in support of the Diamondback.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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