Appeals judges challenge UM lawyer on withholding parking fine records University argues that information is confidential

October 08, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Judges of the state's highest court pointedly grilled the lawyer for the University of Maryland yesterday as she argued that federal law bars the school administration from releasing records of campus parking fines assessed to student athletes.

Three of the seven judges challenged Dawna Cobb's assertion that parking fine records are educational records protected by federal law, asking why they weren't considered criminal records, which would be public.

One judge wondered if it is fair to other Marylanders that the university guards the secrecy of student parking fine records but tells the Motor Vehicle Administration about other unpaid violations.

"They certainly did not seem sympathetic," Cobb, an assistant attorney general, said after arguing that students expect the records to be confidential and need a venue to make mistakes out of the public eye.

The university is trying to keep the Diamondback, the campus student newspaper, from getting parking ticket records for basketball stars they believe may have racked up thousands of dollars in fines. Some believe this could be a watershed case on student records.

The court's ruling could affect the more than 217,000 students attending Maryland's public colleges, universities and community colleges because it could open for public scrutiny records of their campus violations.

The Diamondback sought parking ticket records for Terrapin basketball players and their coach, Gary Williams, in February 1996 after guard Duane Simpkins was suspended for three games for accepting a $2,000 loan from a former coach to help pay his $8,242 in campus parking fines.

The paper also sought the university's report to the National Collegiate Athletic Association on the incident.

When the university refused, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which threatens to withhold federal funds from colleges that release educational records without students' consent, the Diamondback sued.

Prince George's County Circuit Judge E. Allen Sheppard ruled that the paper was entitled to the records under the state's public information law, but the university appealed and the Court of Appeals took the case.

Yesterday, Cobb asserted that parking fine records are rTC educational records because the administration prepares them for student financial records. Therefore, they are protected under federal law.

But Judge Howard S. Chasanow asked, "Why isn't your policy of requiring student athletes to consent to give their records to the NCAA" a violation of federal law?

By contrast, the judges went easier on Diamondback lawyer Lee Levine, who claimed the university was trying to shield itself from bad publicity behind an irrelevant federal law. The judges asked few questions and generally allowed him to present his argument with few interruptions.

"The university does not like adverse publicity, and it especially does not like adverse publicity about the basketball team," Levine said.

He said viewing a campus ticket, which details fines and procedures for payment and appeal, would convince the judges that information derived from tickets is a law enforcement record.

"There is a manifest public interest" in student misconduct, allegations of favoritism and how a public university deals with the fines, he said.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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