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The Daily Tar Heel

Judge: University should have provided public records

In split decision, tutor information is protected by FERPA

A Wake County Superior Court judge wrote Tuesday that UNC should have complied with certain public records requests filed by media during the NCAA investigation of the football team.

Complete phone records of key officials involved in the investigation and athlete parking tickets — records requested by the The Daily Tar Heel, the (Raleigh) News & Observer and other media — should have been released, wrote Judge Howard Manning, who heard arguments from both UNC and media lawyers Friday.

The University withheld the information because officials said it was shielded by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects an individual student’s academic record. That law was being interpreted too broadly by the University, Manning wrote.

“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 wrote.

In another section of the decision, the judge ruled in favor of the University that names, employment dates and salaries of student tutors are protected by FERPA.

The DTH, the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer were among eight news organizations that filed suit in October.

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.

In a statement Tuesday, Thorp expressed mixed feelings about Manning’s decision. He said he was pleased Manning had reaffirmed the privacy of student tutors — but unhappy with other information deemed public.

“We are disappointed with the court’s apparent interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as it applies to student records related to phone numbers and parking tickets,” he said.

“This has far-reaching implications for all of our students and their records that we believe federal law protects.”

Thorp said the University would evaluate its options for appeal after the ruling is finalized.

Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, argued in court on Friday that the University had applied FERPA too broadly.

“There is no straightforward or common sense meaning that phone records or parking tickets are part of an educational record,” she said in court. “We simply think that is a reading of FERPA so stretched as to be absurd.”

Sarah Frier, editor-in-chief of the DTH, said she hopes the decision will show the University they have taken FERPA too far.

“We’re happy with anything that makes clear what the public can ask for and what we are entitled to under the law,” she said.

Although Manning did not rule to release all the records the media outlets had originally requested, Frier said the decision was still an overall victory.

Dan Barkin, a senior editor at the News & Observer, also expressed content with the decision.

“We’re pleased with Judge Manning’s ruling,” he wrote in an email. “We have maintained all along that UNC was incorrectly interpreting FERPA and using it to improperly withhold records that should be in the public domain.”

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