Judge: Phone numbers, parking tickets of UNC athletes not covered by FERPA

NORTH CAROLINA —The phone records of university athletic department officials and parkingtickets given to student athletes are not protected from disclosure by federalprivacy law, a state court judge ruled Tuesday.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill withheld thedocuments after they were requested by several news organizations, includingthe student-run Daily Tar Heel. UNCcited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a student privacy law thatallows the federal government to remove funding from schools that releaseprivate education records.

“FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak sothat the student can remain hidden from public view,” Superior Court Judge HowardE. Manning, Jr. wrote in a memo to the parties announcing his decision.

Manning did rule that the names and salaries of studenttutors hired for athletes are protected from disclosure. The records ofstudents employed by the university whose jobs are contingent on their studentstatus are “education records,” the judge held. The records of tutors who arenot students, however, are not protected.

Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, said he was thrilled with Manning’s decision.

“Anything that a judge does anywhere to limit the reach ofFERPA and narrow the definition of an education record is fine with me,”Schwartz said.

The university will have 30 days to do so after the judgeissues a formal written order.

In a statement, UNC chancellor Holden Thorp said theuniversity was pleased with the decision on the tutor information but disappointedwith his ruling on the other records.

“Thishas far-reaching implications for all of our students and their records that webelieve federal law protects,” Thorp said in the news release. “When thejudge’s instructions are finalized in an order, the University will review theruling and evaluate its options for appeal.”

The lawsuit stemmed from an NCAA probe into UNC’s footballprogram last September amid allegations of improper benefits given to studentathletes by sports agents. The university later launched an internalinvestigation into possible academic dishonesty involving the tutors.

One major point yet to be determined is the release of therecords of that internal investigation. The media outlets and the universitywere waiting on today’s decision before making arguments about theinvestigation records.

“We’re going torequest more stuff,” Schwartz said. “We will continue to test the limits ofwhat the university will try and hide from view under this federal law thatdidn’t intend any of this stuff to be hidden from view.”

The other media outlets bringing suit were the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, News 14 Carolina,WTVD Television, The Associated Press,and Media General Operations.

The lawsuit named UNC football coach Butch Davis, athleticsdirector Dick Baddour, university chancellor Holden Thorpe and Jeff McCracken,head of the university’s public safety department as defendants.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMontesaid the decision is part of a recent trend in courts’ interpretations ofFERPA.

“I think this is just the latest in a series of indicationsfrom the courts that FERPA is to be applied in a common sense manner thatrecognizes the importance of disclosure and transparency,” LoMonte said. “Courtafter court has told schools that FERPA is not to be applied in an absurd wayto conceal information that is not educational and this is yet anotheraffirmation that FERPA can’t be abused to conceal newsworthy andnon-confidential information.”