A&A: State university won’t disclose student cafeteria workers’ pay

Q: I’m a  journalist at a state university where our student cafeteria came under fire from the administration over a party they’d hosted. A source told me that the student managers of the cafeteria were suspended without pay. I contacted the accounting department to request how much those students were paid per week over the past 2 months.

I was referred to my school’s PR person, who said that that information  is not public record. Here’s what she told me:

“Under FERPA and university policy, a job that a student has that is open only to enrolled students is protected and not disclosable as part of the student’s educational record. We can provide you with the rate of pay for a particular position but not for a specific person or the payroll over a specific period of time. Given your request, I am seeking this rate of pay for the position of COHO student manager.”

Is this true? It’s really not public record? I can’t find out how much our Chancellor, for example, was paid last summer?

 A: The Supreme Court held in a 2007 case that the salaries of certain highly paid employees, specifically police officers earning more than $100,000 a year, were subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act (and those salaries could be matched with specific names).  See IFPTE v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 319 (2007).

Case after case following IFPTE seems to recognize that “the name of every public officer and employee, as well as the amount of his salary, is a matter of public record.”  SCERS v. Superior Court, 198 Cal. App. 4th 986, 1000 (2011).

However, if there is some other law that would exempt the salary information that you are seeking, such as the FERPA, it may be that the university is justified in withholding those records.  Id. (“[IFPTE] thus confirms that government payroll information—whether it be the salaries of active public employees or the gross pension amounts paid to retirees—is public information that cannot be kept confidential unless it is explicitly made so by statute.”).

It may very well be that FERPA does exempt this information from disclosure; however, the university should give you the specific federal code section that it is citing as justification for nondisclosure of the requested records, and explain how that code section applies.

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.