The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday May 25th

Column: UNC’s public records service has been inexplicably poor

jenny

Jenny Surane is the 2014-15 Editor-in-Chief. She is a senior business journalism major from Cornelius.

It’s appalling that the University spends $600,000 staffing its public records office each year, yet Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, named it one of the worst entities to request public records from.

The original idea behind publicrecords.unc.edu — which catalogs every public record request made to UNC — was probably worthwhile. But the website has largely amounted to nothing more than a platform for the University to bully reporters out of filing public records requests by giving unsubstantiated time frames and prices for the records’ return.

For instance, earlier this academic year, the public records website said it would cost the University more than $7,000 each time it wanted to release the response to its accrediting agency to a media outlet.

Never mind that the University was required to compile this response in the first place in order to maintain its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The document was eventually published online for the public to review — meaning it ultimately cost the University nothing to release the document to news outlets.

It’s instances like these that make it seem as though the University hopes to shame and deter journalists from making the public records requests that allow them to hold power to the light.

Journalists and members of the public have a right to know more about the operations of their state-sponsored university.

This newspaper has also spent many years going back and forth with the University about releasing the names of students convicted of sexual assault by the Honor Court.

The University claims these names are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. In reality, the act doesn’t protect names of perpetrators of violent crimes. The public is allowed to know the names of the people convicted of rape on campus.

But the University says it isn’t required to release the names, and therefore it won’t.

FERPA is a familiar place universities go to hide from public records requests.

If universities violate the act, they risk losing their federal funding. So it might seem reasonable for universities to tread carefully when it comes to releasing information.

But in reality, no university has ever been charged for improperly releasing FERPA-protected information. Open government advocates will tell you FERPA is not the danger universities will lead you to believe it is.

It’s appalling that the University spends $600,000 staffing its public records office each year yet was still named one of the worst entities to request public records from.

But it’s something that can be fixed. With that kind of staffing, this office can likely achieve so much more than it currently does.

This week, we’ve included sunshine logos with each of the stories we’ve printed where we used public records.

For some stories, it just meant we had access to the University’s directory, which is actually information provided to us under the North Carolina public records law.

In other cases, like with our daily police logs, we rely on incident reports from the Chapel Hill Police Department.

We’ve printed these logos in an effort to show our readers how crucial public records are to the production of this newspaper. We love transparency, and we hope our readers do too.

In honor of Sunshine Week, the University should make a real commitment to improving its processes for fulfilling public records.

For duplicate requests, the University should make those records available online.

And it should remember the state’s open records law — which urges entities to provide the public with records at a free or minimal cost — before it proceeds further with discussions about charging people for access to records.

Finally, the University should stop waiting on laws and lawsuits to tell them to release information. Instead, it should follow the spirit of the North Carolina public records law and remember that these documents are already the property of the people.



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