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DTH Media Corporation v. Folt

September 2016
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Public college or university)
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States

Identity of Speakers

  • The Daily Tar Heel
    Student
    Other

    Independent student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Other
  • Incident Responses:
    University administration not protective of speech
    Title IX or other federal statute
  • Incident Status:
    In litigation State Court
    Appealed
  • No protest Occured
  • Did not involve Speech Codes

Summary

On September 30, 2016, various media corporations including the Daily Tar Heel, Capital Broadcasting Company, The Charlotte Observer Publishing Company, and The Durham Herald Company, sent a public records request to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The media outlets requested copies of public records made by the University concerning “people having been found responsible for rape, sexual assault, or any related or lesser included sexual misconduct by [UNC-CH’s] Honor Court, the Committee on Student Conduct, or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office. The University denied the request on October 28, 2016, citing that the records were protected from disclosure by the Family Educations Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA.)

In response, the media groups filed a complaint against the University and its administrators under the Public Records Act on November 21, 2016, seeking 1) a preliminary order compelling the University to appear and produce the records sought; 2) an ordering declaring that the requested records are public records; and 3) an order compelling the University to permit the inspection and copying of the records. After mediation, the media groups amended their records request and limited it to the 1) the names of people who were convicted of a sexual offense by various University bodies since January 2007; 2) the date and nature of each violation; and 3) the sanctions imposed. The Wake County Superior Court heard the matter on April 6, 2017, and on May 9, 2017 entered an order denying the Plaintiffs’ request for student records, but granted the Plaintiffs’ request to access employee records. The court held that the Public Records Act only compelled the release of records if mandated by law, and that under FERPA the University had discretion as to whether release the records. The Plaintiffs appealed, and on April 17, 2018, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina upheld in part and reversed in part the trial court’s decision. The court held that the University must release the names, violations, and sanctions imposed on students who were found responsible for sexual misconduct by university bodies, but that the FERPA did not permit the University to release the dates of student offenses. The court reasoned that 1) FERPA did not provide the University with discretion as to whether to release student conduct records; 2) FERPA limited the disclosure to names of students, violations committed, and sanctions given; 3) Congress did not preempt the North Carolina Public Records Act when it passed FERPA. In light of this decision, the University appealed and the case is currently pending in the Supreme Court of North Carolina.