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UNC-Chapel Hill sued over access to sexual assault records

The Old Well at of the campus is the iconic symbol of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Old Well at of the campus is the iconic symbol of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. KRT

The Charlotte Observer and three other news outlets are suing UNC-Chapel Hill for public records concerning how the university has handled sexual assault cases.

The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court on Monday by the Observer, WRAL, the Durham Herald-Sun and The Daily Tar Heel, the university’s student newspaper.

The suit stems from a Sept. 30 public information request by the Daily Tar Heel. In that request, reporters asked for records “in connection with a person having been found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser” offense by the school’s Honor Court, the Committee on Student Conduct or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

The university declined to provide the information, calling the data “educational records” and protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

FERPA protects all educational records – including student conduct information – from disclosure, said school spokesman Joel Curran in a statement.

“Releasing names of those found responsible in sexual assault or misconduct cases will inevitably lead to disclosures about the identity of victims who put their trust in the university’s process,” Curran wrote.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., called the university’s claim that it was protecting victims’ identities by withholding the records “a smoke screen.”

LoMonte said Congress in 1991 created an exemption to FEPRA that made public the disciplinary outcomes of violent or sexual crimes at colleges and universities. He said public information includes the offender’s name, the offense and the discipline. Failing to provide those records makes holding the university accountable nearly impossible, he said.

Other universities, including the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Bowling Green State University in Ohio, have provided the records without being sanctioned by the federal government, LoMonte said.

“Colleges are prone to fall back on FERPA as an excuse to conceal anything they find embarrassing or inconvenient for them to disclose,” he said.

Rick Thames, executive editor of the Observer, said victims have criticized UNC-Chapel Hill for not taking sexual assault cases with the utmost seriousness. The way to change that, he said: “Release records that clearly are public. That will provide insight to how these cases are being handled.”

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