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NC Supreme Court says UNC must release disciplinary records in sexual assault cases

UNC-Chapel Hill must release disciplinary records of students found responsible for sexual assaults on campus, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The case stemmed from a 2016 public records request made by four news organizations — The Daily Tar Heel campus newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, the Herald-Sun and Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL They requested the name, offense and punishment for any student found responsible for sexual misconduct, including rape and sexual assault, since 2007.

UNC-CH repeatedly denied the request and refused to hand over the records, arguing that they were protected by the federal student privacy law FERPA.

The court ruled that the university “does not have discretion to withhold the information sought here, which is authorized by, and specified in, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as subject to release.”

UNC must comply with the North Carolina Public Records Act and give the news organization access to the name of the student, the violation committed and any sanction imposed by the UNC on that student in response to the records request, according to court documents.

Universities have the responsibility to report and handle complaints of sexual assaults and people have the right to know how they’re doing it, said Hugh Stevens, the attorney for the media companies.

“We think it’s important for students, prospective students and the public in general to be able to understand how the universities are handling those complaints or accusations,” Stevens said. “By withholding the information ... you can’t see how seriously [UNC] has taken these matters or how many people have actually been found responsible for these serious offenses.”

This ruling gives media and the public access to the information at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Stevens expects that to extend to all of the UNC System campuses to shed light on the issue of sexual assault on campus.

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