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UNC-Chapel Hill Resistant To Public Records Requests

The Bill of Rights. Credit: Archives.gov. align=left

Editor's Note: This story includes a clarification. UNC-Chapel Hill celebrated its third annual First Amendment Day this week. As the name implies, it was a chance for the university to address the importance of the First Amendment and public records law. But last spring, a judge found UNC in violation of North Carolina public records law. The school had refused to release records related to investigations of the Tar Heel football program. UNC said it couldn't release them because of a federal privacy law. But some media advocates and journalists say that's a common cop-out from UNC system schools when it comes to records that could make the universities look bad. WFAE's Michael Tomsic reports. The Raleigh News and Observer's executive editor, John Drescher, is no stranger to legal battles. In his office, he takes out a manila folder. "As you can see here, it's a couple inches thick," Drescher says. A big chunk of that file focuses on UNC-Chapel Hill. The N&O, the Charlotte Observer and other media organizations sued UNC last fall. They argued the university was withholding public records related to NCAA investigations into the football program, like coaches' phone records and parking tickets that players received. The university claimed it couldn't release the records because of a federal law, called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. Congress passed it in the 1970s to protect student educational records, like transcripts or disciplinary action. But Drescher says over time it's become a blanket excuse for universities to hide all sorts of documents. "This creates a really outrageous situation where if you're a student at UNC and you get a parking ticket on Franklin Street, it's of course a public record, as all court documents are," he says. "But if you get that parking ticket on the UNC campus, UNC says it's not a public record. Well of course that makes no sense.: A judge agreed, and ruled last spring that UNC had to make parking tickets public record. It turns out, a dozen UNC football players racked up almost 400 parking tickets on campus the last few years that totaled more than $13,000. And phone records released because of the lawsuit revealed more than a hundred conversations between an NFL agent and, at the time, a UNC assistant coach - some while UNC players were at the same California training facility the agent's clients often used. That trip turned out to be a major NCAA violation. The coach resigned last fall. The judge has yet to rule on whether all documents that UNC turned over to NCAA investigators should be released as well. The university declined repeated interview requests for this story. But Chancellor Holden Thorp has said UNC is just following federal privacy requirements. That excuse is a stretch, says Frank LoMante, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. "There's definitely a sense when you make requests to the University of North Carolina for records that are going to be embarrassing or controversial or reflect poorly on the reputation of the university, that they'll call a narrow strike zone in terms of disclosure, and that you're going to have to fight them for it," LoMante says. LoMante says many reporters have called him over the years wondering if UNC can use FERPA to hide this or that record. But he says UNC is hardly the only school where that's an issue. "It is absolutely epidemic for schools to invoke FERPA in a way that covers far, far more records than Congress ever intended." And it goes past withholding records. Sometimes universities release them but black out the most important information. That's part of what led to the recent lawsuit against UNC, says Steven Norton, the Daily Tar Heel's editor-in-chief. "Anytime that it's something sensitive, there is a general sense among the reporters that we're not getting everything we need," Norton says. That happened with the phone records. At first, the school blacked out almost all of them. At the News & Observer, Drescher says the phone records are still incomplete. Former UNC football coach Butch Davis' cell phone records are missing. "We don't have 'em yet. We think that they're covered by the lawsuit. And we still want those records." The university says it doesn't have to release them because Davis is no longer an employee. University attorneys have reviewed the records, but a UNC spokesman says the school doesn't have them. The spokesman says the records belong to Davis, and it's up to him to release them. Chancellor Thorp fired Davis in August, in part because of all the information that that was revealed as a result of the media lawsuit. At the time, Thorp said the cumulative damage from the investigations was getting to be too much for the university.