UNC will appeal FERPA ruling ordering disclosure of athletic department records

The chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said Thursday the school will appeal a judge’s decision and seek a stay in a public-records lawsuit filed by media outlets including the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

The trial judge’s April 19 decision declared that phone records of university athletic department officials and parking tickets given to student athletes are not protected from disclosure by federal privacy law.

In a press release, Chancellor Holden Thorp said the school is appealing because of student privacy rights, not because of a desire to conceal information about UNC’s football program.

“Our responsibility is to protect the privacy rights of all of our students, whether they’re on the football team, in the marching band or in a Chemistry 101 class. So this is really not about the football investigation. If this ruling were to stand, it would put the privacy rights of all of our students at risk,” Thorp wrote in the release.

“We have provided more than 23,000 pages of documents in response to the plaintiffs’ requests. That includes hundreds of pages of phone records in redacted form. We have even offered to provide the parking tickets with personally identifying information removed. We have done our best to comply with N.C. public records law and our federal obligation to protect student information at the same time,” Thorp wrote.

The university withheld the documents after they were requested by several news organizations, including the student-run Daily Tar Heel. UNC cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a student privacy law that allows the federal government to remove funding from schools that fail to safeguard private education records.

“FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view,” Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning, Jr. wrote in a memo to the parties announcing his April 19 decision.

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

Manning came out Thursday with a more formalized version of his April 19 decision, explaining the legal reasoning for his ruling. In it, stated that “the telephone number of a student that happens to appear on the phone bill of a coach or the athletic director is not a part of the education records protected by FERPA.”

The lawsuit stemmed from an NCAA probe into UNC’s football program last September amid allegations of improper benefits given to student athletes by sports agents. The university later launched an internal investigation into possible academic dishonesty involving the tutors.

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.

In addition to Thorp, the lawsuit named as defendants UNC football coach Butch Davis, athletics director Dick Baddour, and Jeff McCracken, head of the university’s public safety department.