Media organizations file suit against UNC officials
Daily Tar Heel among plaintiffs
Four top UNC officials have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed Thursday by a coalition of eight news organizations seeking access to public records.
At issue are records relating to the University’s ongoing investigation of improper relationships with athletic agents and academic misconduct surrounding the football team.
When refusing the records requests made under the N.C. public records law, the University has cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law known as FERPA.
“We don’t make judgments about who wants private student information or why,” said Leslie Strohm, UNC’s vice chancellor and general counsel, in a statement. “Our duty is to apply the law consistently and correctly. We provide the records we’re allowed to share under federal privacy law, and withhold the records that those laws deem private.”
The plaintiffs, led by The Daily Tar Heel and The (Raleigh) News & Observer, believe UNC is misusing the privacy law in order to withhold records that could prove embarrassing.
The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, seeks the release of the following:
- Unredacted phone records for cell phones issued to head coach Butch Davis, athletic director Dick Baddour and former associate coach John Blake;
- Employment information for tutors and mentors employed by the University, as well as documents mentioning former tutor Jennifer Wiley;
- Internal documents relating to the University’s investigation;
- Records of parking tickets issued to 11 players;
- Names of individuals who have provided benefits to UNC players;
- Records showing football student-athletes with scholarships
Named as defendants in the suit are Davis, Baddour, Director of Public Safety Jeff McCracken and Chancellor Holden Thorp. The four men are considered the “custodians” of the records in question under the state law.
“By using an overly broad interpretation of the law to withhold records, University officials are inciting speculation that there is something to hide and that they value protecting that information more than they value the public’s trust,” DTH Editor-in-Chief Sarah Frier said.
The plaintiffs have filed numerous records requests for these and other records beginning in early August. The University has consistently cited FERPA when denying requests.
In a statement, Thorp said he was “disappointed” by the lawsuit.
“The University is 100 percent committed to complying with our obligations under public records laws,” Thorp said. “We have been responsive to the media and to the exceptionally large number of records requests they’ve submitted.”
The public records office processing requests from all media organizations has spent about 600 hours in the past three months on football-related requests, UNC said. There have been more than 80 requests in all, and Thorp has authorized hiring additional staff to process the requests, the statement said.
UNC has released redacted copies of some of the records. Phone records for Baddour, Blake and Davis were released in September, and the University provided records identifying three people who gave illegal benefits to players on Friday. In both cases, the records were heavily redacted to avoid identifying the student-athletes involved.
FERPA law was intended to prevent schools from sharing sensitive student information, such as grades, with others. The 1974 law also gives students a right to inspect their educational records.
Reports of players receiving illegal benefits from agents surfaced in the summer. Since then, the University has uncovered instances of academic misconduct as well. In all, 14 players have been held out from games.
Marvin Austin, Kendric Burney, Greg Little, Robert Quinn and Deunta Williams all received benefits from people classified as agents or financial advisers, UNC officials have said previously.
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