¶ 1. N. PATRICK CROOKS, J.
In this case, we review a court of appeals' decision, Osborn v. Board of
¶ 2. Both parties appealed and the court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court of appeals concluded that all records sought—including records of both those who matriculated and those who did not—were prohibited from disclosure under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g (2000), as amended (hereinafter FERPA
¶ 3. On review, we reverse the court of appeals' decision. We conclude that Osborn is not requesting personally identifiable information; therefore, FERPA does not prohibit disclosure of the requested information in this case. We then balance the public policy interests involved and conclude that because the request does not seek personally identifiable information, there is no overriding public policy interest in keeping the requested records confidential. Further, we conclude that based on the statutory requirement to provide information subject to disclosure and delete information not subject to disclosure as stated in Wis. Stat. § 19.36(6) (1999-2000),
¶ 4. The relevant facts are not in dispute. In 1998 and 1999, Osborn requested public records from the University in order to analyze and compare data regarding the admissions policies and practices of public institutions of professional education. On April 2, 1998, in nearly identical letters, Osborn first requested public
¶ 5. On June 15, 1998, in response to the original requests to the University's undergraduate campuses, the University provided several hundred pages of documents in response to requests numbered 1 through 5 and 16 through 27. The University also responded to some of those requests by claiming that it does not maintain records of the type requested. With regard to Osborn's requests numbered 6 through 15,
¶ 6. After receiving the University's denial, Osborn attempted to clarify the requests and asked the University to reconsider its decision in a subsequent letter, dated June 22, 1998. Specifically, Osborn stated in part:
The University responded to Osborn's letter by maintaining its position that education records are not subject to open records requests and that the University has no duty to redact or create new records.
¶ 7. In response to Osborn's requests to the Law School and the Medical School, the University similarly provided some records, but denied several of the requests, including those for test scores, grade point averages, and class rank by race or sex.
¶ 9. The University appealed and Osborn cross-appealed. In a published decision, the Court of Appeals, District IV, affirmed in part and reversed in part. Osborn, 2001 WI App 209, ¶ 25. First, the court concluded that the University's objection based on FERPA is an objection with the requisite degree of specificity. Id. at ¶ 10. Then, after looking at the definitions of "education records" and "student" in the Code of Federal Regulations, the court concluded that all records requested by Osborn are specifically exempted from disclosure under FERPA. Id. at ¶ 15. The court also concluded that even if records of the non-enrollees were not specifically protected by FERPA, disclosure was properly denied based on the public policy interest in preserving the privacy of student records. Id. at ¶ 19. The court declined to address the impact of Wis. Stat. § 118.125 because the case was resolved under federal law. Id. at ¶ 21. Finally, with regard to the University's obligation to redact, the court concluded that § 19.36(6) does not require the University to produce the records
¶ 10. Judge Dykman dissented. He noted the strong presumption of disclosure of public records in Wisconsin and concluded that public policy favors disclosure of the information Osborn requested. He indicated that it is the University's burden to show that the records should not be disclosed and that it has failed to do so in this case. Id. at ¶ 30. Judge Dykman then rejected the majority opinion's broad definition of "student" and concluded that Congress intended a limited exception for the records of non-students. Id. at ¶ 35. Finally, he disagreed with the majority opinion's decision regarding the University's obligation to redact.
Id. at ¶ 37.
¶ 11. We subsequently granted Osborn's petition for review.
¶ 12. In this case we examine the custodian's reasons for denying the open records requests and
¶ 13. In Wisconsin, we have a presumption of open access to public records, which is reflected in both our statutes and our case law.
Wis. Stat. § 19.31; see also Linzmeyer v. Forcey, 2002 WI 84, ¶ 15, 254 Wis.2d 306, 646 N.W.2d 811 (recognizing the presumption that all public records should be open to the public); Mayfair Chrysler-Plymouth v. Baldarotta, 162 Wis.2d 142, 155, 469 N.W.2d 638 (1991) (discussing presumption of open access to public records as having been long recognized in Wisconsin); Hathaway v. Green Bay Sch. Dist., 116 Wis.2d 388, 392, 342 N.W.2d 682 (1984) ("Public policy and public interest favor the public's right to inspect public records."); Newspapers, Inc. v. Breier, 89 Wis.2d 417, 426-427, 279 N.W.2d 179 (1979) (recognizing the legislative presumption that "where a public record is involved, the denial of inspection is contrary to the public policy and the public interest"). The open records law, Wis. Stat. § 19.35,
¶ 14. The right to inspect public records, however, is not absolute. In certain circumstances, a custodian should deny a request to inspect public records. Access should be denied where the legislature or the court has predetermined that the public interest in keeping a public record confidential outweighs the public's right to have access to the documents. "Thus, the general presumption of our law is that public records shall be open to the public unless there is a clear statutory exception, unless there exists a limitation under the common law, or unless there is an overriding public interest in keeping the public record confidential." Hathaway, 116 Wis. 2d at 397.
¶ 15. After receiving an open records request, a custodian should turn to the statutes and to this court's established procedural standards to determine whether disclosure of the requested public records is proper. First, the custodian must determine whether any of the exceptions to open access apply, and then "weigh the competing interests involved and determine whether permitting inspection would result in harm to the public interest which outweighs the legislative policy recognizing the public interest in allowing inspection." Breier, 89 Wis. 2d at 427. If the custodian decides that the open records request should be denied, then the custodian must state the specific policy reasons relied on to make that determination. Mayfair, 162 Wis. 2d at 157; Breier, 89 Wis. 2d at 427; see also Wis. Stat. § 19.35(4). Further, pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 19.35(4)(b),
¶ 16. In reviewing a mandamus action seeking to compel the custodian to disclose the requested public records, we first examine the sufficiency of the custodian's stated reasons for denying the request. Rathie, 142 Wis. 2d at 687. The threshold question is whether the custodian stated legally specific reasons for denying the open records request. Mayfair, 162 Wis. 2d at 158. It is not this court's role to hypothesize or consider reasons to deny the request that were not asserted by the custodian. Breier, 89 Wis.2d 417. If the custodian states insufficient reasons for denying access, then the writ of mandamus compelling disclosure must issue. Oshkosh Northwestern Co. v. Oshkosh Library Bd., 125 Wis.2d 480, 486, 373 N.W.2d 459 (Ct. App. 1985).
¶ 17. Here, the University denied Osborn's open records requests by stating: (1) disclosure of the requested information would violate FERPA, (2) the public interest in the disclosure of the requested records is outweighed by the public interest in non-disclosure, and (3) complying with the request would essentially require the University to create a new record, which is not required under the open records law. The parties here do not dispute that the University's reasons for denying Osborn's requests satisfy the custodian's duty to state specifically the policy reasons for denial. See Chvala v. Bubolz, 204 Wis.2d 82, 87-88, 552 N.W.2d 892 (Ct. App. 1996) (concluding that there are some statutes, including FERPA, "that leave no room for explanation or discretion when applied to
¶ 18. We begin by examining the scope of FERPA and whether the University correctly relied on the Act as a basis for denying Osborn's requests. FERPA conditions the availability of funds to educational agencies and institutions based on their policies and practices regarding open access to education records. Specifically, the Act provides in relevant part:
20 U.S.C. § 1232g(b)(1) (emphasis added).
¶ 19. The dispute here is to what extent, if any, FERPA protects from disclosure the records Osborn has requested from the University. We note that this issue, the scope of protection for records under FERPA, is one of first impression in Wisconsin.
¶ 20. In denying Osborn's open records requests, the University relied on FERPA, claiming that the requested records are "education records" which, under FERPA and Wisconsin's open records law, are excepted from the general rule of inspection. The University interprets FERPA to protect all information contained in education records, including the information requested here. Specifically, the University argues that student records include records of applicants who subsequently attend the University, as well as records of applicants who do not matriculate. The University seems to contend that all student records contain only personal information, and not any information that is subject to disclosure because of an open records request. According to the University, because Osborn's requests are for information regarding each applicant for enrollment, on their face, the requests are for personally identifiable information protected from disclosure by FERPA.
¶ 21. In contrast, Osborn argues that FERPA prohibits disclosure of information contained in education records in only two situations, neither of which is
¶ 22. We conclude, based on the plain language of FERPA, that the Act prohibits non-consensual disclosure of personally identifiable information contained within education records.
¶ 23. In order to determine if the requested information is personally identifiable and subject to protection from disclosure, we look to the regulations adopted to implement FERPA. Specifically, 34 C.F.R. § 99.3 (2000) defines personally identifiable information as follows:
Based on this definition, we conclude that only if the open records request seeks information that would make a student's identity traceable, may a custodian rely on FERPA to deny the request on the basis that it seeks personally identifiable information.
¶ 24. While we base our interpretation of FERPA on the plain language of the Act itself, we note that our interpretation of FERPA here is consistent with Wisconsin's prior interpretation of FERPA in Rathie v. Northeastern Wisconsin Technical Institute, 142 Wis.2d 685, 419 N.W.2d 296 (Ct. App. 1987).
¶ 25. The court first examined the language of FERPA itself, and also looked at regulations adopted to protect and enforce students' right to privacy, including the definition of personally identifiable information in 34 C.F.R. § 99.3. Id. at 690-691. The court did not interpret FERPA as prohibiting disclosure of all information in education records. To the contrary, the court relied on the same personally identifiable information distinction we rely on here.
¶ 26. Next, the court in Rathie examined the purpose of FERPA. Looking to the congressional record, the court quoted the purpose of the Act as asserted by its sponsors.
Id. at 693 (quoting 120 Cong. Rec. 39862 (Dec. 13, 1974) (Joint Statement in Explanation of Buckley/Pell Amendment) (emphasis supplied)). The court noted that the privacy protection is "secured by the regulations adopted ... allowing the institution to release personally identifiable student records `only upon written consent.'" Id. at 694 (quoting S. Rep. No. 93-1026, 93rd Cong., 2d Sess. 186, reprinted in 1974 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 4250). Finally, the court concluded that because the requested information was personally identifiable, the public policy basis for nondisclosure outweighs the interest in disclosure. Id.
¶ 27. Our interpretation of FERPA here is consistent with Rathie and the stated purpose of the Act itself. Similar to Rathie, we conclude that non-consensual access to information in education records is not wholly forbidden. Rather, access is limited only to disclosure of information that is not personally identifiable. We agree
¶ 28. We now turn to Osborn's open records requests and apply our interpretation of FERPA here. We focus on whether Osborn's requests seek personally identifiable information as defined in 34 C.F.R. § 99.3. Osborn is not requesting the student's name, the name of the student's parent or other family member, the address of the student or student's family, or a personal identifier such as the student's social security number. We, therefore, must determine whether the requested information is a list of personal characteristics or other information that would make the student's identity easily traceable.
¶ 29. The disputed open records requests here focus largely on test scores, class rank, grade point average, race, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background. At oral argument, Osborn's counsel clarified that at a minimum, Osborn needs the following information to accomplish stated research goals: test scores, grade point average, race, gender, and ethnicity. Furthermore, Osborn has maintained that the University should comply with FERPA by redacting all personally identifiable information. In fact, as early as June 22, 1998, Osborn wrote the University:
¶ 30. Based on the written requests and his counsel's statements at oral argument, we conclude that Osborn is not requesting personally identifiable information. The list of somewhat minimal information Osborn requests—grade point average, test scores, race, gender, and ethnicity (if recorded)—is not sufficient, by itself, to trace the identity of an applicant. Although we recognize that in a small number of situations the requested information could possibly create a list of characteristics that would make an individual personally identifiable, we conclude that under the circumstances here, the information is not personally identifiable. Specifically, we find it significant that the name of the high school or undergraduate institution is not included in Osborn's list of necessary information. With the name of the institution excluded, we conclude that it becomes significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to identify an individual based only on the data Osborn has requested. For example, by redacting or deleting the name of the high school or undergraduate institution, the University no longer faces a situation where only one minority student from a named high school applies to one of the University's campuses and therefore, even though the student's name is not disclosed, the data could be personally identifiable. By complying with Osborn's requests and
¶ 31. Furthermore, we find it significant that Osborn is asking the University to comply with FERPA and provide only the requested information that is not personally identifiable. As previously noted, at oral argument Osborn's counsel provided a list of minimal information needed to accomplish the desired research objectives. Osborn's counsel also indicated, however, that to the extent this requested information is personally identifiable, the University should state it as such and refuse disclosure. We conclude that Osborn's list of minimal necessary information is not a list of personal characteristics that would make a student's identity easily traceable. We do not intend, however, to deprive the University of a discretionary decision, in an individual case, to conclude that providing Osborn's list of minimal necessary information would involve disclosure of personally identifiable characteristics. The University should comply with FERPA and, in those few situations, refuse to disclose the information if it would indeed involve the release of personally identifiable information. We are satisfied that as long as the University complies with Osborn's requests and provides the somewhat minimal information necessary for Osborn's research, in all but a very few situations the disclosed data would be about the applicant, but not traceable to the applicant's identity. Accordingly, we conclude that the University inappropriately relied on FERPA in denying Osborn's open records request, because FERPA does not prohibit disclosure of records where personally identifiable information is not included.
¶ 33. The University's second stated reason for denying Osborn's open records requests was based on public policy. The University claimed that the requested information "implicates the personal privacy and reputational interests of individual students and applications for admission." Accordingly, the University balanced the interests involved and concluded that "[t]he public interest in the disclosure of these records is outweighed by the public interest in nondisclosure."
¶ 34. The University argues that Wisconsin's public records law exempts application records of students from disclosure. According to the University, the records of applicants contain only personal information, not information subject to disclosure, so none of the information Osborn requests from the application records is accessible under the open records law. The University argues here, by analogy, that Wis. Stat.
¶ 36. In contrast, Osborn and Amicus Curiae, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Student Press Law Center (hereinafter collectively referred to as "Amicus"), argue that Wisconsin's public policy favors openness of records and that public access should be denied only in exceptional cases. In support of its position, Osborn cites the declaration of policy in the open records law, Wis. Stat. § 19.31, indicating that Wisconsin prefers open government and public accountability unless there is an exceptionally good reason for confidentiality. Osborn also cites this court's precedent expressing a presumption of open access. See ¶ 13, supra.
¶ 37. Applied here, Osborn and Amicus argue that there are important policy reasons for making the requested information available. Disclosing data from
¶ 38. Finally, Osborn and Amicus argue that when balancing the public policy interests here, we should conclude that the presumption of openness prevails. Public policies favoring disclosure, including the presumption of openness, are to be weighed against the harm to the public interest in disclosing the requested information. See Milwaukee Teachers' Ed. Ass'n v. Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Dirs., 227 Wis.2d 779, 786, 596 N.W.2d 403 (1999); Woznicki v. Erickson, 202 Wis.2d 178, 183, 549 N.W.2d 699 (1996); Wis. Newspress v. Sheboygan Falls Sch. Dist., 199 Wis.2d 768, 781, 546 N.W.2d 143 (1996); Breier, 89 Wis. 2d at 437; Kraemer Brothers, Inc. v. Dane County, 229 Wis.2d 86, 101, 599 N.W.2d 75 (Ct. App. 1999); Rathie, 142 Wis. 2d at 694. Osborn and Amicus argue that unlike Rathie, where the student records involved were personally identifiable, when applying the balancing test here the court should conclude that the public's interest in inspection and openness outweighs any potential detriment to the public interest in disclosure. The requested
¶ 39. We agree. We begin by applying the presumption of openness in Wisconsin, and pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 19.31, access should be denied only in an exceptional case. We have already concluded that the specific statutory exception of FERPA does not preclude disclosure of the requested records, and we now conclude that there is no overriding public interest in keeping the requested records confidential. See Hathaway, 116 Wis. 2d at 397.
¶ 40. We conclude that applying the balancing test here produces a different result than Blum and Rathie. In both of those cases, either because they were small in number or because they included specific information, the requested records contained personally identifiable information. We have already concluded here that Osborn is not requesting personally identifiable information. Any detriment to the public interest, such as a privacy or reputational interest, therefore, is not present. In contrast, the public interest in open access and the ability to analyze data regarding the University's admissions policies and procedures remains. After weighing these competing public policy interests, we conclude that the presumption of openness and access to public records prevails; public policy favors disclosure in this case. We reiterate that Wisconsin prefers open government and public accountability, and "only in an exceptional case may access be denied." § 19.31. This is not an exceptional case. We conclude, therefore, that the University inappropriately relied on public policy to deny Osborn's open records requests.
¶ 41. The University's final reason for denying Osborn's open records request was that in order to comply with the request, the University would have to essentially create a new record, which is not required under the open records law. Specifically, the University noted that the requested information regarding test scores, grade point averages, race, etc., is maintained only in the individual records of applicants. The University then cited Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(L) and stated, "Custodians of public records are not required to create new records by extracting information from existing records and compiling it in a new format. For this additional reason, disclosure of the records requested must be denied."
¶ 42. We begin by examining the statutes regarding a custodian's duty to redact. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(L) states: "Except as necessary to comply with pars. (c) to (e) or s. 19.36(6), this subsection does not require an authority to create a new record by extracting information from existing records and compiling the information in a new format." As noted, § 19.35 must be read in conjunction with § 19.36(6), which relates to the separation of information for access under the open records law.
§ 19.36(6) (emphasis added).
¶ 44. In contrast to the University's position, Osborn and Amicus argue that the University has a statutory duty to redact information that is not subject to disclosure, and then disclose the remaining requested information. Osborn looks directly to the language in Wis. Stat. § 19.36(6) and argues that the legislature enacted the statute exactly for the circumstances present in this case—where some information is subject to disclosure and some is not. The legislature instructed that in this type of situation a custodian "shall provide the information that is subject to disclosure and delete the information that is not subject to disclosure from the record before release." § 19.36(6) (emphasis added). By using the word "shall," Osborn and Amicus argue that a custodian may not refuse to redact. Rather, the custodian has a duty to comply with the statute and separate information subject to disclosure from information that is not.
¶ 45. We agree with Osborn and conclude that the University must comply with the statutory duty to delete or redact information not subject to disclosure. Section 19.36(6) specifically addresses this situation where some of the information in the applicants' records is subject to disclosure, but some is not. We have concluded that the University must comply with Osborn's open records requests regarding the minimal information Osborn needs to fulfill research goals. The
¶ 46. Furthermore, we reject the University's reliance on Schopper because that argument is misplaced. The University is not relieved of its duty to redact under Wis. Stat. § 19.36(6) simply because the University believes it is burdensome.
¶ 47. Based on the unambiguous language in Wis. Stat. § 19.36(6), we conclude that the University has a duty to comply with Osborn's open records requests by redacting or deleting the information that is not subject to disclosure. We previously concluded that Osborn is not requesting personally identifiable information that is protected from disclosure either by FERPA or by public policy considerations. Consistent with Osborn's open records requests, therefore, the University must comply with § 19.36 by redacting or deleting personally identifiable information in the application records, before releasing the information subject to disclosure.
¶ 48. In summary, we reverse the court of appeals' decision. We have concluded that Osborn is not requesting personally identifiable information. Consequently, the University cannot rely on FERPA to prohibit the disclosure of the requested information found in student application records. We have balanced the public policy interests involved, and have concluded that because the requested information is not personally identifiable, there is no overriding public policy interest in keeping the requested records confidential. Finally, we
By the Court.—The decision of the court of appeals is reversed.
¶ 49. SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON, C.J., did not participate.
Osborn's requests to the Medical School numbered 9 through 17, and 22, stated:
Wisconsin Stat. § 118.125(1)(d) defines pupil records as follows:
With regard to the confidentiality of pupil records, § 118.125(2) states in relevant part: "All pupil records maintained by a public school shall be confidential...."
(3) FEES. (a) An authority may impose a fee upon the requester of a copy of a record which may not exceed the actual, necessary and direct cost of reproduction and transcription of the record, unless a fee is otherwise specifically established or authorized to be established by law.
(b) Except as otherwise provided by law or as authorized to be prescribed by law an authority may impose a fee upon the requester of a copy of a record that does not exceed the actual, necessary and direct cost of photographing and photographic processing if the authority provides a photograph of a record, the form of which does not permit copying.
(c) Except as otherwise provided by law or as authorized to be prescribed by law, an authority may impose a fee upon a requester for locating a record, not exceeding the actual, necessary and direct cost of location, if the cost is $50 or more.
(d) An authority may impose a fee upon a requester for the actual, necessary and direct cost of mailing or shipping of any copy or photograph of a record which is mailed or shipped to the requester.
(e) An authority may provide copies of a record without charge or at a reduced charge where the authority determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest.
(f) An authority may require prepayment by a requester of any fee or fees imposed under this subsection if the total amount exceeds $5. If the requester is a prisoner, as defined in s. 301.01(2), or is a person confined in a federal correctional institution located in this state, and he or she has failed to pay any fee that was imposed by the authority for a request made previously by that requester, the authority may require prepayment both of the amount owed for the previous request and the amount owed for the current request.