N.C. newspaper sues UNC for course records dating back to mid-1990s

NORTH CAROLINA — A North Carolina newspaper is once again taking its public records battle with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to court, suing for records that the university compiled as part of a report for a regional accrediting body but won’t release as public records.

The records in question concern data compiled as part of the university’s ongoing response to an academic fraud scandal involving UNC student athletes.

In a Jan. 23 complaint that names Chancellor Carol Folt, The News & Observer Publishing Company asked a judge for an immediate hearing on the issue and for the university to be ordered to turn over the requested records. There had been no additional movement on the case as of Tuesday afternoon.

In 2012, the university “voluntarily sent the [Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’] Commission on Colleges unsolicited copies” of two reports detailing its “academic offerings and procedures,” according to the complaint. Concerned by information included in those and other reports, the commission then asked UNC for more data on its course offerings and those enrolled, which the university provided.

The News & Observer asked UNC to release copies of the records that the university used while creating the report for the SACS relating to courses dating back to the mid-1990s, according to the complaint. The university has resisted despite the newspaper’s attempts to narrow the scope of the requested information to exclude data that might identify individual students, according to the complaint.

According to the complaint, a UNC attorney said in August that the original spreadsheet with the information sought by the newspaper included 13 data fields for the names of students enrolled in courses, their GPAs and more. The N&O is requesting unredacted versions of only three of those data fields: “Sport,” “Title” and “Semester.”

The university says the records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law. University spokeswoman Karen Moon declined to answer questions related to the lawsuit or the university’s responsiveness to requests for information, deferring to an online statement that cites FERPA.

“The information sought, even in a redacted form, would allow some students to be identified with reasonable certainty when linked with other previously available information about student-athletes,” the university said its statement.

Executive Editor John Drescher says that’s not The N&O’s goal in the first place — nevermind that, in his view, individual student identification wouldn’t be as simple as the university suggests.

Plus, he said, UNC already released the similar data for the years 2006 to 2011 without putting up the same fight seen this time around. Drescher said he “can’t see why it would be public record for certain time period but not for another time period.” Getting the information about earlier “no-show classes” could provide insight into the roots of the current scandal, Drescher said.

This isn’t the first time Drescher and The N&O have run into roadblocks getting information from UNC because of its interpretation of FERPA. In 2010, The N&O, The Daily Tar Heel and other news organizations filed another records-related suit against UNC. In that case, the university ultimately agreed as part of a settlement to released some documents that it had otherwise asserted were protected under FERPA. (That settlement came after earlier court decisions saying the records were not protected.)

The same day The N&O’s current lawsuit was filed, Folt told the university’s Board of Trustees that the school should welcome scrutiny in the wake of the school’s academic and athletic scandals.

“We have to accept and do accept that scrutiny,” Folt said, according to the university-run news site. “We have to welcome it, and see it as a tremendous opportunity for us.”

If the university is serious about its commitment to welcoming scrutiny and dialogue surrounding its recent scandals, Drescher said it should reconsider objecting to The N&O’s request.

“I certainly think it would go a long way for the university to release this information,” Drescher said. “I feel confident there must be a way to do that that protects students’ identities… We remain open to talking to the university about how we could do that.”

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