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The Daily Tar Heel

Lawsuit decision is a call for openness

On Tuesday, a state judge told the University that it was overusing a federal statute to illegally withhold information from the public.

The University should not have denied The Daily Tar Heel and other media organizations certain records they requested during the NCAA investigation into the football team. Judge Howard Manning reaffirmed what media organizations have been frustrated about for a while — that UNC has used a federal student privacy act beyond its intent.

Chancellor Holden Thorp had an opportunity Tuesday to trust the judge’s interpretation of the law and move toward a more open administration.

But instead of taking the opportunity to re-evaluate its overly broad use of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act — which protects a student’s personal educational record — the University held its ground and resorted to defense. Thorp said he was disappointed with the court’s ruling.

“This has far-reaching implications for all of our students and their records that we believe federal law protects,” he said in a statement.

But there’s a difference between protecting a student’s educational record — their grades, their academic honor court infractions — and shielding other information from public view because it might be partially related to a student.

Thorp’s reaction to the ruling sets the wrong tone.

The University is a public institution, and when we ask it to be transparent, we should be able to trust it to be.

Through the lawsuit, the media sought records including phone logs of football coach Butch Davis and former assistant coach John Blake, and athlete parking tickets — both of which UNC denied due to FERPA.

But the broader purpose of the lawsuit was to set a precedent for the University that its interpretation of FERPA needs to change.
With his ruling, the judge made a statement about more than the specific records named in the suit.

“FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view while enrolled at UNC,” Manning said in his memorandum Tuesday.

It is our hope that the University will keep the judge’s thoughts in mind for the next time the media or the public requests information. Lawsuits are not productive ways to remind the University of its obligations.

An appeal, which Thorp said the University will consider after the judge’s order is final, would further cost taxpayers in legal fees. More importantly, it would send a message that the University is not willing to be more open — even when the public and the court has asked it to be.

A policy of transparency is much healthier for an institution than a policy of selective disclosure. If our officials are working under the public eye, they are much more likely to work in a way that is honest and serves the public interest.

Officials shouldn’t be disappointed by the judge’s ruling — they should be enlightened by it.

Sarah Frier is the Editor-in-Chief for The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior journalism major from Los Altos, CA. Contact her at frier@email.unc.edu

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