The controversy continues as Knights News awaits unredacted documents detailing the Student Government Association’s disbursements of the Activity and Service Fee for 2016.
Now on its third lawsuit against the UCF Board of Trustees, Knight News has accused SGA of withholding public records and violating the Florida Sunshine Law, which states that government meetings must be open to the public.
The A&SF is a fee that students pay as part of their tuition. Currently, the fee is $11.67 per credit hour. The A&SF Business Office, located in the Student Union, serves as a “support office” for Registered Student Organizations and students who are allocated these funds by SGA, according to the A&SF website.
Knight News reporter Michael Williams, who has covered the SGA beat since October 2015, originally requested the documents at the beginning of this year in order to ascertain how the $18.6 million budget was being spent.
“The judge’s ruling that UCF has to provide these unredacted records is a victory for both open government advocates and student journalists across the country,” Williams said.
The Board of Trustees stated that SGA is not an independent government, but more so a “simulated learning laboratory” in defense to allegations made by Knight News that the redacted documents are in fact hiding how the budget is being disbursed.
“If SGA is really an ‘educational learning laboratory,’ UCF is committing educational malpractice by teaching terrible lessons,” said Derek Lowe, the digital media director for Knight News. “UCF owes it to the public to teach our future lawmakers to spend the public’s money with transparency and accountability — not secrecy.”
SGA President Christopher Clemente said student government is exactly what it sounds like — a student government.
“We are students elected by students who represent students. Once in our positions we do not stop being students,” Clemente said. “The university can call us a learning lab if they so wish, but this interpretation will not impact our ability to advocate and represent students.”
The university insisted that the only reason the documents have been heavily redacted is to protect the identities of the students involved. They cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a law meant to protect the educational records of students, as a defense.
“Any redaction made in the process of releasing records has nothing to do with how SGA is spending the Activity and Service Fee,” said David Oglethorpe, the communication coordinator for the Office of Student Involvement. “This organization is committed to keeping the students it represents as informed as possible.
“At the end of the day, both sides have the same goal — we want to keep SGA as transparent as possible. The challenge is ensuring that we are respecting the rights and protections that are afforded to every student at this university.”
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal privacy statute that protects the confidentiality of students’ educational records and is generally used in regards to protecting, test scores, grades and disciplinary records, not necessarily the public financial documents Knight News has requested, according to Knight News. The university is claiming its use of FERPA is in an attempt to protect the way these names are listed in the A&SF documents.
“That’s a very liberal interpretation of that law,” said Daniel Bair, a senior journalism student. “They’d have to do some mental gymnastics to defend the notion that public financial records do not fall under the purview of a law designed for protecting academic records.”
In an Aug. 11 ruling, Judge John E. Jordan determined that if a student or parent requested student records, as intended by FERPA, it is almost certain that the they would not receive a copy of requested budget forms and A&SF database records. The reasoning behind this is that the student’s name would appear in these documents. Rather, the student or parent would likely receive a copy or be permitted to review a student’s record contained in a centralized file in the UCF registrar.
The registrar serves to maintain accurate and secure academic student records with the utmost regard to privacy. Some of the documents ascertained in the registrar include academic transcripts, student financial records, schedules for final exams and the academic calendar. The majority of these records are protected under FERPA, as they are confidential.
For instance, student A has access to his or her own records, as does the university. However, student B does not have access to student A’s records because of FERPA.
“I think it shows that the university doesn’t understand or care about the purpose of our profession,” Bair said. “Our job is to report the truth, and act as a watchdog against powerful people. They love us when we smile for the camera and shake hands with the football players, but disregard us when it’s time to hold them accountable. That has to change.”
Students can find information on how the A&SF is being utilized by visiting the SGA website. Student budgets can be viewed in their entirety at http://asf.sdes.ucf.edu/financials and the process in which these funds are allocated can be found in the Student Government statutes at http://ucfsga.com/about-sga/constitution-and-statutes.
Originally published Sept. 2, 2016