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News organizations file suit against UNC-CH for access to sexual assault records

Posted November 21, 2016

Several media organizations, including Capitol Broadcasting Company, which owns WRAL, filed a lawsuit on Monday against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for access to records pertaining to sexual assaults and misconduct on campus.

A request made by several media organizations on Sept. 30 requested copies of all public records made or received by UNC-Chapel Hill in connection with a person having been found responsible by the Honor Court, the Committee on Student Conduct or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office of rape, sexual assault or any lesser sexual misconduct.

"The names, in our view, are clearly public information and the university has declined to produce them after lots of discussion. So, we have no choice to resort to the courts and have them decide," said Hugh Stevens, an attorney for the media coalition that filed the suit.

In a letter sent by the university on Oct. 28, Vice Chancellor for Communications Joel Curran stated that the requested records are classified as “educational records,” as defined by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and are therefore protected from disclosure.

In the letter, Curran said that, while he appreciated the interest in advocating for transparency, the university disagreed with the stance that releasing the names of students found responsible in sexual assault cases would constitute a “public service.”

“Rather, we’re firmly convinced that such disclosures would have quite the opposite – and devastating – impact on victims, as well as the campus community,” Curran wrote in the letter.

UNC-Chapel Hill adopted a new policy for handling sex assaults two years ago amid a federal investigation into how the school had handled such cases previously. Five women asked the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights in 2013 to look into what they called an atmosphere of sexual violence at the school, where officials under-reported the frequency of sexual assault cases and had created a hostile environment for students reporting assaults.

The updated policy details prohibited conduct, including stalking and gender-based harassment, provides resources for victims and outlines the adjudication process. Students are no longer allowed to serve on grievance panels that hear sex assault cases, and all students are required to take an online sexual violence and harassment training course.

In the letter, Curran states that FERPA protects all educational records, including Title IX investigation records, from disclosure. FERPA permits, but doesn’t compel, universities to disclose names of students, violations committed or sanctions imposed if a student is found to have violated rules and policies for a violent crime or sexual assault.

The lawsuit filed Monday argues that, because FERPA does permit universities to disclose student names and violations, the information is subject to public records law, and UNC has no legal justification to failing to provide requested copies.

"Why should the treatment, in terms of protecting the identity of the perpetrator, be any different just because it happens within the jurisdiction of the campus police as opposed to teh Chapel Hill police or Orange County sheriff," questioned Stevens. "If they say they are going to go after people who commit these offenses and they are going to have a process that can lead to proper adjudication and punishment, then we need to know how it's working."

The lawsuit is requesting that a court require UNC bring all requested documents before the court to be reviewed by a judge and enter an order declaring the requested records as public records unless the university can sufficiently demonstrate why the media organizations are not entitled to copies.

Curran released the following statement in response to the lawsuit Monday evening:

"Carolina has a profound responsibility to protect and vigorously defend the privacy of sexual assault victims and all students, including witnesses, who may be involved in a campus Title IX process. The Title IX process is required by the U.S. Department of Education, making any outcomes part of a student's educational record. The University's position- widely held by the nation's other colleges and universities- is directed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law that protects the confidentiality of student education records, and informed by the opinions of victims, witnesses, investigators, counselors and others."

Other media organizations named in the lawsuit include the Daily Tarheel Media Corporation, The Charlotte Observer Publishing Company and The Durham Herald Company.

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  • Mike Slawter Nov 22, 2016
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    The public record of these incidents "may" include the names of the victims. I know that WRAL and others have a "policy" of not releasing those names. However, the news staff will know who they are and then can attempt to force their way onto the victims seeking interviews. Is this what we want? Media and news coverage at all costs? I understand very well the idea of transparency and open government after spending 17 years doing it for the State of NC and the feds. However, I feel this is an attempt to grandstand and gain ratings. Shameful.