COLUMBIA — University of Missouri System professors' course outlines are legally protected under federal copyright law, a lawyer for the four-campus system argued Monday as the schools fight against public release of records related to teacher training.
The National Council on Teacher Quality is trying to force the university, citing the state's open records law, to release copies of course syllabuses as part of its nationwide effort to monitor what aspiring teachers learn at college. The Washington-based education advocacy group plans to publish the results next year in a joint study with U.S. News & World Report, rating schools with letter grades from A to F.
The council, which filed a lawsuit in October, wanted an immediate ruling during Monday's hearing, but Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane refused. He told both sides to exchange pre-trial information and return at a later date.
University attorney Paul Maguffee told the judge that federal copyright law "includes the right to control distribution." But the council's attorney said that argument has been rejected in dozens of other cases where state universities initially objected to disclosing such records.
"The sole question in this case is whether the records are protected from disclosure by (state) law," said Chesterfield-based attorney Mary Schultz, who represents the council.
She said the university is arguing that private copyrights should be protected by a public university that "is going to have to justify tuition raises while fighting and using resources" to withhold documents its employees freely provide to students.
Maguffee declined to answer questions after the hearing.
The education group settled a similar complaint Friday against the 12 schools in the University of Wisconsin system. The agreement requires those schools not only to provide course outlines for all required undergraduate education classes but also to reimburse the National Teacher Quality Council for nearly $10,000 in legal fees spent trying to obtain the documents.
But the agreement requires the group to follow a confidentiality clause, not quote directly from any of the course syllabuses or name specific professors or courses as either good or bad examples.
The group would follow similar restrictions with the UM System, said Arthur McKee, the council's managing director of teacher preparation studies.
"The public needs to know about the quality of these institutions," he said after Monday's hearing. "That's all we need to know."
The council's research methods have been criticized by universities in Missouri. In a February 2011 letter to the council, 14 university presidents from Missouri declined to participate in what they called "ill-conceived 'research'" conducted "in a coercive way from outside the profession."
The leaders of Westminster College, Lindenwood University, Missouri Southern State University and the University of Central Missouri were among those who shared their objections.
That resistance has led the teacher quality council to seek course outlines in more creative ways, such as buying syllabuses from former students contacted through classified ads in campus newspapers.
At MU, student government leaders voted soon after the lawsuit was filed to create a "syllabus archive" that would allow students to compare their current course content to previous versions.