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‘Trib’ lawsuit could have broad impact

The Tampa Tribune is suing USF and its spokesman, but the outcome of the suit might extend beyond the University and represent broad implications when it comes to deciding which student records are made public, said a lawyer working on the case.

The suit, filed Jan. 30, claims the University turned in an inaccurate, incomplete list of tutors working for the Academic Enrichment Center to Tribune higher education reporter Adam Emerson, a violation of public records law.

In e-mails included in court filings, the University stated it needed to contact students before releasing their contact information, and later stated it would not release the names and contact information of student tutors.

When the University furnished a list, it was different than a list of tutors in a photograph taken by a Tribune staffer on another occasion, prompting the lawsuit, the filing stated.

Although no decision was made when the Tribune and USF went in front of Judge Frank Gomez at a hearing Thursday, Susan Bunch, who represents the Tribune, said on an earlier date that the suit could mean more than whether the University has to turn over the records. It could affect how certain some student records are treated, and what is considered private and off-limits to individuals and media organizations.

“I think we think it’s an interesting opportunity for Florida, to address just how broadly the privacy stature is going to be interpreted,” she said.

Bunch added a caveat, though, saying she and the Tribune didn’t want to sue the University, but thought legal action was their only choice.

“We would rather that this not have to happen in the confines of a lawsuit. We only bring a complaint as an absolute last resort. You don’t want to sue for access unless you’ve also exhausted all your other possibilities,” she said.

Bunch also said she’s talked to USF’s lawyers and, from the conversations, was confident the Tribune and the University would have to settle their dispute in court.

“I’ve had discussions with University council, and I think it’s likely we’re going to have to wait for the judge to make the decision,” she said.

USF Spokesman Ken Gullette, who is named as a defendant in the suit in addition to USF’s Board of Trustees, said he could not comment on the lawsuit, but would speak generally of the University’s public record’s policy.

“USF is committed to fulfilling open records requests in a reasonable time period,” Gullette wrote in e-mail. “We’re also committed to protecting confidential student information.”