UNC does not have to disclose sexual assault findings, judge rules

An Orange County judge ruled this week that UNC-Chapel Hill does not have to provide the public with the names of students and employees found responsible of rape, sexual assault or related offenses through the school’s honor court and other internal procedures.

Judge Allen Baddour issued a ruling on Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by a group of media outlets in an attempt to get the information from UNC.

The suit stems from a Sept. 30 public information request by The Daily Tar Heel. Reporters asked for records “in connection with a person having been found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser” offense by the school’s honor court, the Committee on Student Conduct or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

The university declined to provide the information, calling the data “educational records” and protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The Charlotte Observer, the Durham Herald-Sun, The Daily Tar Heel and WRAL sued the university last year.

Baddour stated that federal law protecting student records supersedes state law that allows for the release of such information in some cases.

Baddour also found that the state Human Resources Act limits what information can be released about state workers disciplined, demoted or dismissed for disciplinary reasons to the dates and types of actions taken and a copy of the termination letter setting out the reason the employee was dismissed.

Joel Curran, the UNC-CH vice chancellor for communications, said Baddour’s ruling was a welcome one.

“The University has a legal and ethical responsibility to protect the privacy rights and educational records of all students,” Curran said in a statement. “The ruling allows us to continue to uphold that responsibility and protects the identity of the reporting parties who put their trust in the university’s process.”

The ruling comes at a time when UNC is working to overcome a wave of criticism for its handling of sexual assault cases.

UNC-Chapel Hill adopted a new policy for handling sex assaults in 2014 after five women asked the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to look into what they called an atmosphere of sexual violence at the school. In their 2013 complaint, the women contended that officials had created a hostile environment for students reporting assaults and under-reported the number of complaints.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1