Suit filed by North Carolina paper for access to campus disciplinary hearings

NORTH CAROLINA — The student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has filed one of the first cases in history to gain access to student disciplinary hearings.The Daily Tar Heel filed suit in April to gain access to hearings involving two students charged with impeding the free speech of a conservative campus magazine’s publishers. The newspaper is also asking for access to future hearings and past records.Campus hearings in the matter were halted when the newspaper obtained a court-issued temporary restraining order to keep the school’s honor court from continuing in closed session.The following day, a superior court judge refused to extend the restraining order and said hearings could resume. Records of the hearings are being preserved pending the outcome of the case.The honor court at UNC hears cases dealing with drug possession and use, sexual assault and other criminal offenses involving students. Statistics from these hearings are the only information available to the public.The two students on trial, Reza Ardalan and Rich Fremont, allegedly took more than 1,500 copies of the conservative magazine the night before student body elections took place in February. They were found not guilty by the disciplinary body in June.The Daily Tar Heel and other campus journalists maintain that thousands of criminal offenses “virtually disappear” each year in secret court hearings such as these.”The Daily Tar Heel has long felt that the honor court falls under the North Carolina Open Meetings Law and should be open,” said Editor Jeanne Fugate. “As journalists, we feel it is of the utmost importance that we have access to information that is not deemed an educational record. Statistics do not show what kind of students are involved.”The first case of this kind was filed in 1991 by the student newspaper at the University of Georgia, The Red & Black. In that case the Georgia Supreme Court granted access to disciplinary records and hearings, stating that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly referred to as the Buckley Amendment, could not be used to keep such records private.Only last year, the U.S. Department of Education said it believed that records of disciplinary proceedings were covered under FERPA, but that the law did not “prevent an institution from opening disciplinary proceedings to the public.”UNC’s hearings were held in closed session due to regulations dictated under FERPA and the school’s policies, claimed the university. All proceedings will be opened if The Daily Tar Heel wins its case.No court date has been set.