Office for University Relations


July 13, 2011. Updated October 14, 2011.




Background: The University of Illinois complies with more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the Chicago Tribune, providing nearly 5,800 pages of documents. The University exempts some information from disclosure on the basis that the information is protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which states that “[N]o funds shall be made available under any applicable program to any educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release of education records (or personally identifiable information contained therein . . .) of students” without prior written consent.

Beginning in April 2009:  The Chicago Tribune begins submitting multiple FOIA requests to the University of Illinois seeking a wide variety of information about admissions practices on the University’s Urbana-Champaign campus.  Many of these requests seek information protected from disclosure by FERPA.  In response, the University releases many documents but redacts from the documents personally identifying information as well as other FERPA-protected information such as student GPAs and ACT scores.

Beginning in May 2009:  The Tribune uses information from the thousands of pages of documents provided by the University in response to numerous FOIA requests submitted by the newspaper to the University to launch a series of articles on admission practices.

May 28, 2009:  The Tribune appeals the partial denial of one of its FOIA requests to the President of the University, requesting that student GPAs and ACT scores be released. 

June 8, 2009:  The University denies the Tribune’s FOIA appeal, noting that disclosure of GPAs and ACT scores “would clearly be in violation of FERPA and also would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

June 18, 2009:  The Tribune files a lawsuit in state court in Sangamon County, seeking to force the University to disclose FERPA-protected information, including student GPAs and ACT scores.

June 23, 2009:  In response to a Request for Documents from the Office of the Illinois Governor Admissions Review Commission seeking various student admissions records, the University sends a letter to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), seeking written guidance regarding whether complying with the Request for Documents would “run afoul of the student privacy rights and concerns reflected in and through FERPA.”

August 6, 2009:  The DOE responds, saying “Once an applicant becomes a student in attendance, then all information provided in connection with the admissions process that the institution maintains would be considered ‘education records’ subject to FERPA.”

September, 2009:  A new Board of Trustees enacts reforms of admissions policies to ensure that practices brought to light in part by media coverage of information disclosed by the University in response to FOIA requests cannot occur again.

December 10, 2009:  The Tribune files a FOIA request with the University of Illinois – the FOIA at the heart of this case – calling on the University to disclose the names and addresses of applicants’ parents and the identity of individuals who made a request or otherwise became involved in applications for all “Category I” applicants who were admitted and subsequently attended the University of Illinois.

December 21, 2009:  The University denies the Tribune’s December 10 FOIA request, citing FERPA, which provides that no federal funds shall be made available to any educational institution that has a policy or practice of permitting the release of such “education records” or “personally identifiable information” unless there is written consent, a judicial order, or an applicable statutory exception – none of which, the University contends, exists in this case.

December 24, 2009:  The Tribune appeals the University’s denial to the President of the University, as provided by the then-applicable version of FOIA.

December 30, 2009:  The University denies the Tribune’s appeal, stating that “it would not be appropriate for the University of Illinois to produce the information that you have requested, which in our opinion would be in violation of FERPA, without receiving direction to do so from either the Family Policy Compliance Officer of the U.S. Department of Education or an appropriate court of law.”


Background:  The University responds to approximately 605 FOIA requests, providing 101,088
pages of documents to inquiring parties, and with University staff typically responding with as much non-FERPA-protected information as possible.

January 1, 2010:  Amendments to Illinois’ FOIA statute go into effect, removing the per se privacy exemption that had protected student information in the hands of public bodies providing educational services.  The amendment effectively leaves FERPA as the sole basis for public colleges and universities to rely upon in some instances to protect student information from public disclosure in response to a FOIA request.

January 27, 2010:  The Tribune files suit in federal court in Chicago seeking review of the December 30, 2009 denial of its FOIA appeal by the University and requesting a declaration by the court that FERPA does not protect student information from disclosure in response to a FOIA request. The Tribune’s ultimate purpose in filing suit is to force the University to disclose the names, addresses and hometowns of students’ parents, even though the information is clearly protected from disclosure by FERPA.

March 5, 2010:  The University files its answer and affirmative defenses in federal court, refuting the Tribune’s arguments that the records the newspaper seeks are not protected by FERPA.

April-May 2010:  The Tribune and the University each file motions for summary judgment, seeking a determination from the court as to whether the information sought by the Tribune is protected from disclosure by FERPA.


March 9, 2011 (March 7 Order and Judgment entered on March 9):  Order by Judge Joan B. Gottschall grants the Tribune’s motion for summary judgment and denies the University’s cross-motion for summary judgment. The district court concludes that FERPA “does not forbid Illinois officials from taking any action,” but rather “sets conditions on the receipt of federal funds,” adding that Illinois “could choose to reject federal education money, and the conditions of FERPA along with it.”

April 12, 2011:  The University files a motion with the district court seeking to stay Judge Gottschall’s March 9 ruling and announces its plan to appeal, noting that, while Judge Gottschall’s original ruling suggested that the University could simply choose to forego federal funds in order to comply with FERPA when dealing with FOIA requests like the Tribune’s, the practical outcome of that approach would essentially be tantamount to closing the school’s doors to the many applicants and students who rely on financial aid.

April 18, 2011:  The Tribune files an objection to the University’s motion to stay, urging Judge Gottschall to reject the University’s request.

April 20, 2011:  Judge Gottschall grants the University of Illinois a stay of her March 9 order, noting that while she felt compelled to rule for the Tribune, it was her hope, given the “disastrous potential impact on students and their families,” that the higher court would review the case and provide greater clarity.

May 10, 2011:  Attorneys for the University of Illinois file a notice of appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit from Judge Gottschall’s March 9 order.

July 13, 2011:  The University of Illinois files its brief with the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, requesting the court reverse Judge Gottschall’s ruling and seeking oral argument with the Court.

July 20, 2011:  Filing deadline for any “Friend of the Court” briefs supporting the University of Illinois’ position on appeal. Amici briefs filed in support of the University of Illinois tendered by the following groups:

  • The American Council on Education -- (ACE) -- and the 1,800 University presidents it represents, along with nine other national higher education organizations: the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, representing more than 400 institutions; the American Association of University Professors; the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the nation’s oldest association of higher educational institutions; the American Association of Community Colleges, representing more than 1,200 institutions; the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, representing more than 2,600 institutions and 10,000 enrollment officials; the American College Personnel Association, representing more than 1,500 institutions; NASPA - Student Affairs Officers in Higher Education, representing 12,000 members on 1,400 campuses; the 11,000 member National Association of College Admissions Counseling; and the Association of American Universities, comprised of more than 60 leading public and private research universities in the United States and Canada.
  • EPIC – the Electronic Privacy Information Center – a leading public interest research center established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values.
  • Eight Illinois public universities -- Chicago State University, Eastern Illinois University, Governors State University, Illinois State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University and Western Illinois University.
  • Department of Justice

August 12, 2011:  Filing deadline for brief on behalf of the Chicago Tribune.

August 26, 2011: Attorneys for the University of Illinois file their reply brief with the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

September 30, 2011: Oral Arguments are presented to Seventh Circuit panel. University urges federal appellate court to uphold student privacy rights.

October 14, 2011: University files brief in response to appellate court request for clarification of jurisdictional issues.