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I was reading online some of the legal troubles in the US that can occur to recommend letter writers. I imagine that many of us are familiar with (at least some of the) FERPA regulations. We must obtain (in writing) a signed permission to use grades, and (at least according to one place I found) we are also required to inform the letter receiver not to convey that information to a third party without written consent.

At many receiving institutions, during the submission process there is a (sometimes large) legal disclaimer. At some institutions, this includes something to the effect of "Law prevents us from keeping your letter confidential. We will protect your identity, unless a court says we cannot. etc..."

Some employers keep a permanent file containing the recommend letters. As we all know, details over time become fuzzy, and so this seems to leave a letter writer open to litigation if details in the letter are disputed (by either a disgruntled employer or the one we write the letter for).

What protections exist for those who write recommend letters? In particular, can letter writers give a time limit to how long an employer may keep a letter? Apparently, in countries outside the US, letters of recommend are very short, to avoid legal issues.

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  • Honesty and truthfulness are your main protection.
    – Buffy
    Oct 20, 2020 at 15:22
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    My employer absolutely does not keep letters around for any length of time, not least because there is no driver to do so, and legal liability if doing so.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 20, 2020 at 15:37
  • There are legal protections in the US. The bar is fairly high for charges of libel. See law.cornell.edu/wex/libel
    – Buffy
    Oct 20, 2020 at 16:17
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    In the U.S., grades and anything else that is an "education record" are protected by FERPA, hence the caution not to convey such information to third parties. That absolutely does not keep the subject of the letter from seeing it.
    – Bob Brown
    Oct 20, 2020 at 17:49
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    I was reading online... — Would you mind sharing some links?
    – JeffE
    Nov 19, 2020 at 17:00

1 Answer 1

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On mathjobs.org letter writers can give an expiration date for their letters.

I have no idea what would happen if a disgruntled applicant took some sort of legal action to obtain a copy of those letters.

To the best of my understanding (I'm not a lawyer, etc.), in the U.S., in academic settings, there are no genuine protections for letter-writers. Rather, if/when everyone behaves civilly, there's simply no issue.

This is why I try to demur when asked to write letters in situations that make me uneasy, especially when I feel compelled to say "I'm sorry, I'm not confident that I can write you a helpful letter. Perhaps someone else can do better."

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    The last paragraph is a wise policy. Highly recommended.
    – Buffy
    Oct 20, 2020 at 16:22
  • "if/when everyone behaves civilly" The problem is that I wouldn't have even thought to warn a letter receiver not to share the letter with a 3rd party. I'm looking for some standard document that one could attach to a letter (possibly as a link) laying out the "civil" uses of the letter. Just like we have different levels of copyright on our other works. Oct 20, 2020 at 18:05

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