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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

“Guest Column: ASUA should be open, accountable”

Students of the UA: You are losing your clout, and unless you stand up for yourselves you will be treated simply like customers, or worse, kids.

A story in the March 11 Arizona Daily Wildcat stated that your two ASUA presidential candidates were disqualified and the university won’t tell you why.

For all you know they got caught drinking. Or maybe their grades are too low, or they violated election rules. Or maybe they did nothing wrong and the administration just doesn’t like them. Who knows? You don’t. The government won’t tell you.

According to ASUA Elections Commissioner Michael Colletti, they are keeping it secret because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. I’m not sure if that’s true, or who would give such advice, but it’s misguided. The university could certainly explain the reasons for why it disqualified its student presidential candidates, if it wants to.

This federal privacy law, FERPA, is once again being abused and twisted beyond recognition. Universities have cited FERPA for keeping parking tickets secret, saying they are educational records. They’ve tried to use FERPA to hide corruption, favoritism and nepotism. One school cited FERPA to keep school lunch menus secret.

The creator of the law, former U.S. Sen. James L. Buckley, told the Columbus Dispatch a few years ago that, “”Things have gone wild. These are ridiculous extensions. One likes to think common sense would come into play. Clearly, these days, it isn’t true.””

He’s right. Last week was national “”Sunshine Week,”” which is intended to raise public awareness about government transparency. But from what I’ve seen around the country, secrecy is creeping ever more insidiously throughout government, including universities. This year some states crafted new public record laws that are more secretive than those of Mexico and former Soviet republics, such as Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. While we send soldiers overseas to fight for democracy, we are losing it little by little in our own homeland.

The intent of FERPA was to protect students from unwarranted invasions of privacy, such as being embarrassed by poor grades or other “”educational records.”” As in most privacy laws, the idea is if the information would be highly offensive to the average person and of no legitimate public concern, then it should be kept secret. I agree with that.

But we’ve gone astray. Government agencies are forgetting about that “”legitimate public concern”” part, which is why Buckley has called upon Congress to revamp FERPA. Clearly there is a legitimate public concern to know why two presidential candidates are banned from seeking office. That speaks to what our government is up to, and outweighs the candidates’ privacy interests.

If anything, the secrecy is going to hurt the candidates more than help them, given the flurry of rumors that will probably be far worse than reality. Transparency is cleansing — secrecy breeds mistrust and paranoia.

Even if the ASUA candidate documents are “”educational records,”” such as grades, they are now campaign records, relevant to an issue of public importance, and they should be made public. The U.S. Department of Education is not going to punish the UA for being open about election violations. It all comes down to common sense.

Imagine if, right before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the federal government disqualified Barack Obama and John McCain for unspecified reasons, saying that the U.S. Privacy Act prohibits release of that information to protect their privacy. The nation would be in an uproar. Common sense would prevail, I would hope.

Some people might say, “”Well, that’s real government. This is just ASUA.”” That’s where I start to fear for your student rights.

If you go along with that rationale, you might as well just ignore ASUA and the elections. If ASUA is not real government then it’s simply a puppet organization where the administration pats you on the head and lets you play house. If ASUA isn’t real government, then the Wildcat should spend its time and resources covering something else that is real.

Or, you can view ASUA as legitimate. After all, ASUA decides how to spend your student fees. It makes policy decisions that affect you. It speaks on your behalf to the administration and the Arizona Board of Regents.

It’s really your choice, students.

In some states, such as Washington, public university student governments are officially recognized by statute as legitimate agencies, subject to state open meeting laws. It wasn’t the administration that fought to put that into law — it was student leaders. They wanted clout, and they knew that if they wanted to be real government, then they would have to play by real government rules.

So I encourage ASUA to exert its legitimate power. Be open and accountable, without hiding behind FERPA. Explain, just as a city, state or federal government would, why two seemingly qualified presidential candidates were booted. Engender trust among your 30,000 undergraduate citizens, and be proud to practice real government, in a real democracy.

— David Cuillier is an associate professor in the UA School of Journalism, Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and co-author of “”The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.”” He can be reached at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.

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