News organizations sue UNC for access to football records

NORTH CAROLINA — Eight news organizations sued the University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill on Thursday for access to athletic records deniedto them under a federal student privacy law.

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs — including The DailyTar Heel student newspaper — were denied a variety of documents relating to11 student football players. The university cited the Family Educational Rightsand Privacy Act in denying the outlets’ public records requests.

The football program is under investigation by the NCAA for possibleimproper benefits given to players by sports agents. The university alsolaunched an internal investigation into possible academic dishonesty related totutoring provided through the school.

The requested documents include university investigation records, the namesof people who provided certain benefits to UNC football players, the phonerecords of Athletic Director Richard Baddour and head football coach Paul Davis,parking tickets given to players, the names and employment dates for athletictutors and the recipients of athletic scholarships.

“We think relationships with sports agents aren’t part ofsomeone’s educational record, and we think the public has a right to knowwhether former associate head coach John Blake called players right before orafter talking to sports agents,” Tar Heel Editor-in-Chief Sarah Frierwrote in an editorial Friday. “We think a list of tutors employed by theUniversity isn’t a part of an educational record, and that the publicneeds a clearer picture of how one of them came to assist football players incheating.”

The four plaintiffs — Baddour, Davis, Director of Public Safety JeffMcCracken and Chancellor Holden Thorp — could not be reached for comment.

“We met with The (Raleigh) News & Observer abouttheir concerns and felt like we were being responsive,” Thorp said in aThursday news release. “So I’m disappointed by the lawsuit. Werecognize the media’s legitimate interest in the football story, but wecan’t ignore federal and state law with regard to confidential student andpersonnel records.”

According to the release, the university has received an influx of recordsrequests in recent months and is the process of hiring additional staff tohandle the increase.

“The University is entrusted with lots of confidential informationabout our students,” Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Leslie Strohmsaid in the release. “They and their families expect us to hold thatinformation in confidence because it’s required by federal law and becauseit’s the right thing to do. A football player has the same basic privacyrights as any student on campus.”

Spokesmen Steve Kirschner and Kevin Best of the UNC Athletic departmentdeclined further comment. The Office of University Communications did not returna call for comment.

The media organizations bringing the suit are The News &Observer, The Daily Tar Heel, The Charlotte Observer, TimeWarner Entertainment-Advance/ Newhouse Partnership, WTVD Television, CentralBroadcasting Company Incorporated, The Associated Press and Media GeneralOperations Inc.