UNC will release records to media group as part of settlement in FERPA case

NORTH CAROLINA — A two-year battle for documents detailing an investigation in NCAA violations is over, with public records being released to The Daily Tar Heel and other media organizations today and in the coming days.

The eight media outlets will receive the records after agreeing to a settlement with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which follows an earlier ruling this year by a North Carolina judge that found many parts of the documents in question to be public.

The documents set to be released include those used during an October 2011 hearing by the NCAA Committee of Infractions. These include statements-of-fact relating to individual football players’ NCAA violations, reinstatement requests and billing related to legal fees incurred by the university.

UNC had cited the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act as reason to not release the records. Judge Howard Manning said records related to NCAA rule violations are not protected by FERPA, but sided with the school in saying that records related to student-athlete academic issues and to employees do not have to be released.

After a memo from Manning last month clarifying which documents needed to be released, UNC approached the media outlets to reach a settlement, said Andy Thomason, The Daily Tar Heel’s editor-in-chief.

The news organizations will receive the unredacted documents under certain conditions, according to the settlement. The media outlets agreed not to publish the documents online unless a third party obtains the records and does so first.

The settlement establishes that neither side will appeal the April ruling. Finally, UNC will pay $45,000 for the media outlet’s legal fees, which is about two-thirds of the cost, said Kevin Schwartz, The Daily Tar Heel’s general manager.

“We feel incredibly vindicated and satisfied, after this two year battle to establish that these records in question are not covered by FERPA in any sense of that law,” Thomason said. “We’re over the moon with this agreement.”

“We’re so happy to get the vast majority of what we wanted, and we really just look forward to looking through these records, the very same records we believe we should’ve been able to look through two years ago,” he said.

Receiving unredacted records from the university about students is very rare, Schwartz said.

“We’ll do our journalistic best to report on them, whatever news they may contain,” Schwartz said.

Amanda Martin, an attorney who represents the media group, said she was hopeful but not entirely optimistic this case would set a precedent for future open records cases.

“We haven’t had very good success with the university in obtaining records even in the last six months,” Martin said. “I would like to think it would set precedent but I haven’t seen it happen so far.”

UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement that the school and his department are “deeply committed to maintaining the long-standing traditions of academic achievement and athletic success with integrity that have been the hallmark of our program for many decades. We are completely committed to these principles as we move forward.”

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bailey McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.