The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday March 28th

Public records suit heard today

DTH, media organizations face UNC in court

The Daily Tar Heel joins local and national media outlets today at the Wake County Courthouse for a hearing that could set a precedent for the scope of a student privacy law.

The DTH is part of a coalition with The (Raleigh) News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and five other news organizations that sued four high-ranking University officials in October for withholding records related to infractions by the football team.

Chancellor Holden Thorp, head football coach Butch Davis, athletic director Dick Baddour and Jeff McCracken, chief and director of the Department of Public Safety, are the four defendants named in the lawsuit.

Among the undisclosed records were the names, employment dates and salaries of individuals employed as tutors for UNC student athletes.

The University also refused to provide records of investigations regarding misconduct by football coaches, players and sports agents, as well as parking tickets and some unredacted phone numbers.

In its pre-trial brief, the University cited a student privacy act as justification for its refusal to release contested records.

Leslie Strohm, the University’s general counsel, expressed support for withholding the requested documents in October.

“The University is entrusted with lots of confidential information about our students. They and their families expect us to hold that information in confidence,” she said.

According to a brief signed by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects students by preventing the unauthorized transfer of their academic records.

But in the plaintiffs’ brief, the media organizations claim the contested records are not education-related.

“An education record is specifically defined as including information about students that is maintained by the educational institution,” said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, who signed the brief.

John Drescher, executive editor of the N&O, said the University has stretched this definition.

“The FERPA laws were never intended to cover anything but the most basic student records,” he said.

The plaintiffs’ brief also references the N.C. Public Records Law, citing the philosophy that “the affairs of government (should) be subject to public scrutiny.”

Mike McFarland, spokesman for the University, declined to comment prior to the hearing, adding that other officials like Thorp were also unavailable for comment.

In October, Thorp said he was disappointed by the lawsuit.

“We recognize the media’s legitimate interest in the football story,” he said, “but we can’t ignore federal and state law.”

Sarah Frier, editor-in-chief of the DTH, said she was disappointed, as well — but with the University’s lack of compliance.

“We’re disappointed with the way the University has handled certain requests for public records,” Frier said.

“I think we’ve come to a point where the best way to find clarity on the law is to let a judge decide.”

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