Privacy a poor excuse for hiding the truth

Privacy, like other things in this world, can be taken to excess.

We’ve made no secret over the years of our dislike for the bane of every journalist, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, better known as HIPAA.

When I first became a journalist, it was standard practice to report accident victims’ conditions in the newspaper. Those were also the days in which you didn’t have to stand behind a line, umpteen feet from the counter at the drug store, to avoid overhearing what medicines another customer might be buying.

Now, if we call the Fire Department or the hospital to inquire about the condition of someone who is ill or injured – or even to find out whether they are alive or not – the best we can hope for is a general “they’re here” or, if it’s a realy good day, “they’re in stable condition.” The medics might confirm that they transported so-and-so to the hospital, but that’s about it.

These days we hear a lot about the need for privacy protection – from evil data brokers such as Facebook, to the preservation of our rights to check out a library book without the Department of Homeland Security checking our borrowing records to see what we’ve been reading, to the use of the full-body scanner at the airport. Privacy is a big and legitimate concern in our world.

But HIPAA also has produced side effects such as curtailing follow-up research studies on patients, higher medical costs, withholding of information from those who have a legal right to it – such as family members and caretakers, and more. The fact that patients’ names are no longer posted on their hospital rooms without their express approval has resulted in family members being unable to locate them.

This column isn’t really about HIPAA, though. It’s about a similar area of privacy – in education – and ways it can be abused.

Like health information, educational records are also restricted by law, namely the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which ensures parents have access to their children’s educational records and limits access to those records without parental consent. FERPA applies to all agencies and institutions that receive federal funds, including elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, it would appear at first glance – unless a school were to hide behind FERPA.

That’s what Oregon State University appears to be doing in the case of three siblings, children of Art Robinson, the Republican candidate from Cave Junction, who ran against Peter Defazio for Congress last year. The three are graduate students in the nuclear engineering department at OSU.

Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, went public in early March with accusations that the university is targeting his three children, all of whom, he says, were doing fine in school until after he lost the election and then announced he would run again in 2012. A detailed, blow-by-blow description of Robinson’s version of the events is available at, so we won’t go into it here.

The New Era has not covered this story because no one from Sweet Home is closely involved, other than the fact that Robinson ran for our congressional seat and our tax dollars support OSU. But others have and Hasso Hering of the Albany Democrat-Herald (and Corvallis Gazette-Times) appears to have made one of the strongest attempts to get to the bottom of this. But he was stonewalled.

The university has categorically denied Robinson’s accusations in a public statement, as “baseless and without merit,” but has cited “federal privacy laws” in declining to release information about the Robinsons.

Anyone who has been to graduate school knows that, unlike life as an undergraduate student, a grad student is dependent on the good graces of professors or mentors. In theory, grad school offers a chance to think outside the box, to do independent research, to break new ground. In reality, it often means that a student is required to do whatever a professor dictates, whether it is academically relevant or not, and the professor holds the power of academic life or death over the student’s future.

What smells in the case of the Robinsons is that all three of the students – two brothers and a sister – apparently ran into trouble after the election. That should be enough to make journalists’ news antenna go up – no matter what they think of Robinson’s political views.

Meanwhile, after a more than a month, others are getting involved. The Linn County Republicans have organized a support rally for the Robinsons at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, at the OSU Memorial Union Quad. Art Robinson says that OSU President Edward Ray has repeatedly refused to meet with him to discuss the situation.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the old saying goes, and privacy law in itself is not necessarily a bad thing at all. There’s been a lot of talk about transparency, accountability and access to higher education in Oregon in recent years.

If OSU is serious about about its ethical commitment in these areas, it needs to stop hiding behind a convenient law and demonstrate that it is dealing with this situation in an honest, upright manner.