Court Rules UNC-Chapel Hill Must Reveal Names of Sexual Assault Perps
The unanimous decision reverses a judge’s 2017 order that UNC-Chapel Hill could withhold information related to sexual assault cases under FERPA.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Tuesday that UNC-Chapel Hill must provide the public with names of students and employees found responsible for sexual misconduct through the honor court and other non-criminal internal procedures.
The court ruled against the university’s claim that federal laws prohibit officials from turning over the records, reports The News Observer. Attorneys for the school argued the release of such records “would interfere with UNC-CH’s Title IX process for dealing with sexual assault” by deterring victims and witnesses from coming forward and jeopardizing the safety of students alleged to have committed sexual assaults.
Attorneys for several media organizations, including The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, made arguments for the school to release the information in a special court session held at N.C. Central University in Durham last month.
The appeal stems from a September 30, 2016, public information request by the Daily Tar Heel, requesting records “in connection with a person having been found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser” offense by the school’s Committee on Student Conduct or Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.
The Daily Tar Heel, the Charlotte Observer, the Durham Herald-Sun and WRAL filed a lawsuit after school officials declined the newspaper’s request, claiming the data fell under “educational records”, which is protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
In May 2017, Judge Allen Baddour ruled that federal law protecting student records supersedes state law that allows for the release of such information in sexual assault cases.
Tuesday’s unanimous decision reverses that order, finding that federal law does not prohibit the request by the Daily Tar Heel.
“FERPA does not prohibit the disclosure of the limited information requested by Plaintiffs, except for the dates of offenses,” the ruling states. “Defendants must comply with Plaintiffs’ public records request to release the student disciplinary records at issue, as provided above.”
Since the ruling was a unanimous decision, the school can only ask the state Supreme Court for a discretionary review, which can be denied.
“We are disappointed with the N.C. Court of Appeals decision and are examining all legal options as we review the ruling,” said UNC spokesman Joel Curran. “We firmly believe Judge Baddour made the correct decision last May by recognizing the University’s legal and ethical responsibility under federal law to protect the privacy rights of all students.”
Erica Perel, the general manager of the Daily Tar Heel, says she is happy with the ruling, according to the publication.
“This information is something that Daily Tar Heel reporters have been seeking for quite a few years, as DTH reporters have reported on sexual assault on UNC’s campus and UNC’s response to those assaults,” she said. “This will kind of help complete the picture of the true nature of assault on campus.”
In 2014, the school adopted a new policy for handling sexual assaults after five women requested that the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights look into what they described as an atmosphere of sexual violence on campus. The women claimed officials created a hostile environment for students reporting assaults and underreported the number of complaints.
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