The DTH issued the request alongside a multitude of news organizations: the Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc. on behalf of WRAL-TV; The Charlotte Observer; Fusion; The Herald-Sun; Indy Week; The (Raleigh) News & Observer; The News and Record; North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC; The Student Press Law Center and WFAE.
“We think there’s a significant public interest in both making sure people have access to those records, and a public safety concern in terms of people’s ability to know what the outcome of these sorts of processes are,” said O’Donovan.
The request included a deadline of Oct. 28 for the release of the records.
“This is an urgent concern, and it’s not just in Chapel Hill or North Carolina; it’s a national concern,” O’Donovan said. “And so we’re not interested in spending more years if we need to move forward with other action that will help the University clarify their position on these records.”
She said media organizations need the records to hold the University accountable, and to understand the statistics behind sexual assault cases in order to better inform the public.
“Because we don’t know what’s in the records, or in fact whether any records exist, there’s no way of understanding what it means for someone to have been raped at this university or to have been convicted,” O’Donovan said.
If the University does not grant access to the records through the formal request, O’Donovan said, The Daily Tar Heel will file a lawsuit for redress.
“I had the opportunity to sit down with the university counsel today, and one of the things he said that I agree with is sometimes it’s necessary to go to court in order to resolve these points of disagreement and to help institutions understand how the law is interpreted in places where it’s not necessarily already clear,” she said.
The University issued an official statement on the request from Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran Friday. The statement said UNC’s policy on protecting students’ names complies with federal privacy laws and the practices on student privacy at other public universities.
The statement voiced concern that opening the records and identifying the perpetrators of sexual assault might lead to the identification of survivors of sexual assault.
“We’ve been encouraged by an increase in the reporting of incidents because that trend suggests our education, prevention and awareness programs make students feel comfortable coming forward,” Curran said in the statement. “It’s not in anyone’s interest to put that delicate balance in jeopardy.”
Jeffrey Billman, editor-in-chief of Indy Week, voiced a desire for transparency of the records.
“If there are students who have been found guilty by the student court of sexually assaulting other students, I think that their peers have a right to know that,” he said. “And if the University is not taking appropriate action regarding those students, I think the public has a right to know that.”
In 2012, UNC's Faculty Council voted to remove sexual misconduct cases away from student jurisdiction. Until Aug. 1 of that year, these cases were heard by the student-run Honor Court. Hearings now come before a three-person panel, which University policy states cannot include students.
The editor of The Herald-Sun, Bob Ashley, said he supported the release of the records in the interest of open judicial processes.
“The fact that the Honor Court decisions and proceedings in this don’t become public really contributes to the air of distrust and lack of confidence in the process,” he said. “And I think it’s important that our attorneys, the DTH attorneys, believe that the law clearly requires that they be made public.”
Steven Doyle, the managing editor of The Greensboro News and Record, held a similar opinion.
“I don’t think universities can hide behind laws to pretend to privacy when the crimes are so egregious and the dangers are so great,” he said.
CLARIFICATIONS: This story has been updated to show that the University's statement came from Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs Joel Curran and to clarify that Honor Court has not handled sexual assault cases at UNC since 2012.