NC panel: Public records laws yields information that can expose problems, cause conflicts

relder@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2013 

— When reporters asked University of North Carolina administrators for records concerning student athletes in 2011, the university declined many of the requests, citing restrictions from a federal law meant to protect the privacy of students.

Months later, most of the information became public anyway based on a judge’s ruling, showing that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has its limits.

Congress approved the act in 1974 both to give students access to their own educational records and to block release of sensitive information. Since then, FERPA has been interpreted many ways by educational institutions and those who report and write about them.

“A lot of times FERPA is used as an excuse not to release anything,” Lucy A. Dalglish, journalism dean at the University of Maryland, said Monday. “But there is a lot of information that is release-able. It can get tricky, but I don’t think FERPA protection extends as broadly as a lot of schools interpret it.”

Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was among several speakers at N.C. Sunshine Day, sponsored by the N.C. Open Government Coalition and N.C. State student media.

Sunshine Day featured seminars on public records laws and other facets of open government that drew more than 100 members of the media, legal specialists and government employees and officials to the N.C. State campus.

Dalglish told the group that access to federal records has been more difficult since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and that those who hoped that federal rules might be relaxed under the Obama administration have been disappointed.

“In the last several years, it has become easier to make a Freedom of Information Act request and a little bit quicker,” she said. “But the actual law about what is releasable hasn’t changed.”

Views often vary about what documents should be considered open for public scrutiny, said Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association.

“There is an inherent tension between people who have information and people who want information,” Martin said during a panel discussion on the UNC case.

Also on the panel was former UNC athletics director Dick Baddour, Daily Tar Heel newspaper general manager Kevin Schwartz and Jon Sasser, attorney for former UNC football coach Butch Davis.

Martin, who works on public records requests for The News and Observer, WRAL and other media outlets, said a lawsuit seeking the information about student athletes in 2011 was filed only after several weeks of negotiating “in good faith” with university officials.

“North Carolina’s public records law says there’s some information we should have a right to,” she said. “Such as the parking tickets, which the university said were protected.”

She said voluntary release of information on parking tickets received by student athletes could have saved thousands of dollars in legal costs.

Schwartz said he believes UNC used the federal education privacy act as a tactic to stall media interest in the story.

Baddour objected to that assertion.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that the university was hiding behind FERPA,” he said.

Baddour said the university was largely concerned with abiding by NCAA rules, which prohibited public release of information about its ongoing investigation into the athletics department.

He said the National Collegiate Athletic Association “took an enormous amount of time to do their work” and that the university was “as responsive as we could be.”

Baddour said he was not speaking for the university; a representative for the university was invited to join the panel but declined.

Baddour also said he was not comfortable releasing anything until university lawyers had deemed it appropriate. When Martin said she didn’t think releasing information on parking tickets should keep anyone awake at night, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp piped up from the audience, saying the investigation has cost him “a lot of sleep.”

Other discussion involved the cell phone records of former UNC football coach Butch Davis, who used his personal cell phone to make calls related to university business. Davis ultimately was ordered to release the information pertaining to work-related calls.

Baddour criticized The N&O for publishing former UNC football player Julius Peppers’ transcript, which appeared on a university website that was accessible to the public. Reporter Dan Kane responded to Baddour, saying he had asked the university several times about the transcript, giving UNC officials a chance to remove it from public view before it was identified by The N&O.

N.C. Press Association Director Beth Grace said examining the many facets of the UNC case can help members of the media, government and public education institutions learn how the public information process works.

“There’s nothing it doesn’t have – public records, cell phone records, public employees,” Grace said. “It’s one of the most interesting cases I can imagine for public records.”

Even Monday’s sometimes-heated discussion was helpful, she said.

“This is why the law was written,” she said. “Sometimes people with good intentions will disagree.”

Elder: 919-829-4528

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