The Tribune originally sought the information in April for an ongoing series of stories that described how students whose applications were pushed by public officials or university trustees received preferential treatment by the admissions office despite concerns about some of their qualifications.
But university officials declined to release the applicants' high school grade-point averages or ACT test scores without written consent from parents or, in cases of students older than 18, the applicants themselves.
The dispute pits arguments over the public's right to know about the extent of favoritism in admissions against privacy concerns.
Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which protects student records, the sharing of grade-point averages and test scores would violate the students' privacy even if the applicants weren't named, U. of I. President B. Joseph White wrote in a letter denying the data.
The Tribune argued in its complaint, filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court, that it sought only academic credentials and that, without names, privacy rights would not be compromised.
"We respect the privacy of the students, but we don't believe providing this information violates their privacy. It sheds light on the issue," said Tribune Editor Gerould Kern.
While open-records advocates have sided with the Tribune, privacy law experts argue the university has legitimate grounds for denying the records request.
The matter mostly hinges on whether it's possible, even in theory, to reconstruct the applicants' identities through grade-point averages and test scores, said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, a non-profit public interest research center.