CORRECTION: A previous version of this editorial stated that Judge Howard Manning is a federal judge. He is a superior court judge in Wake County. The editorial has been changed to reflect this. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
The University’s decision to settle its long-running lawsuit with The Daily Tar Heel and seven other media outlets is welcome news. It’s a victory for transparency, accountability and adherence to North Carolina law. But it may be short-lived.
The University will likely continue to defy its responsibility to the public, and only continued pressure for transparency will reverse that course.
The lawsuit began two years ago, after the media’s requests for all records related to the then-fresh investigation into UNC’s football program were stymied by claims that the records were protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Among the records UNC protected were many internal records related to the probe, as well as parking tickets received by student athletes.
It was a shoddy justification that became only more ridiculous with every pound of Wite-Out the University used to render the modest amount of records it did release incomprehensible.
The final blow to UNC’s case, dealt by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, was a healthy dose of common sense: FERPA protects students’ academic records, not all records associated with students. In Manning’s words, FERPA doesn’t provide an “invisible cloak” to students for their entire time in Chapel Hill.
The University must now turn over full, unredacted player transcripts by Nov. 5. Their content will likely shed light on the embarrassing scandal, giving the public some insight into how it developed.
It’s a victory, but it comes two years late. And it will almost certainly be temporary.
One needs to look no further than the settlement agreement to realize that the battle’s not over. “The University does not recognize the establishment of any precedent (and) does not admit or consent to any view of the facts or interpretation of the law…” it reads. “The Plaintiffs do not agree with the University’s interpretation of the precedential value of this Agreement.”
We do not. Chancellor Holden Thorp has repeatedly justified the long — and costly — legal battle by saying that the University wants to be sure it is complying with federal law. This case was a test of whether UNC’s interpretation of FERPA was a valid one.
Judge Manning’s repeated criticisms of the University’s delusional interpretation have likely been discounted.
Apparently, South Building knows federal law better than a judge.
In addition, the University’s administration has admitted to going out of its way to not create public records.
In a deposition, associate athletic director for compliance Amy Herman admitted that she has been advised not to create public records in the course of her duties, saying that “it was pretty much in our heads which student athletes were involved.”
While this does not violate the letter of North Carolina public records law, it certainly violates the spirit of it. This tendency undermines the ability of the public, who subsidize the University, to earnestly examine its performance.
The University’s demonstrated resistance to public checks is probably not going to change any time soon.
One more denied request and UNC might well find itself on the losing end of another lawsuit. That means hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal fees and another blow to this institution’s suffering reputation.
The University should take Judge Manning’s ruling to heart. Using a federal law as cover to violate North Carolina public records law in an effort to save face is a gross disservice to the public.
The public should begin to demand accountability from the University it funds.
The Daily Tar Heel will continue to fight, and others should follow suit.
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