Closed disciplinary proceedings allowed by N.C. appeals court





NORTH CAROLINA — Chalk up another victory for universities insisting that student disciplinary proceedings must be kept closed. In February, the state court of appeals upheld a lower court’s decision that open proceedings of student disciplinary hearings at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would violate federal law.

Daily Tar Heel editors — who sued to have access to UNC’s honor court proceedings for students accused of stealing approximately 1,500 copies of another student publication — are appealing the decision to North Carolina1s supreme court.

According to Kevin Schwartz, general manager of UNC’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, a petition will be filed with the state supreme court. Then the judges on the state1s highest court may choose to hear the case.

Citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, the appeals court ruled that because student disciplinary records are not specifically excluded from the definition of education records, the hearings must be kept closed to protect the privacy of accused students.

“Given the breadth of FERPA’s definition of ‘education records’ … the student records at issue in this appeal are protected as ‘education records’ under FERPA and are ‘privileged or confidential,’” Judge Linda M. McGee wrote in her opinion.

Although the appeals court agreed that the university’s Undergraduate Court is a public body subject to the state open meetings law, it upheld the trial court’s ruling that the statute allows public meetings to be closed to protect material considered confidential under U.S. law.

Because the records of student disciplinary hearings must by law be kept confidential, the three-judge panel reasoned, then the university’s Undergraduate Court does not fall under the state’s traditional definition of a “court.” According to the court1s opinion, the university disciplinary court may be kept closed because it does not hold any state judiciary power that would make it subject to North Carolina’s open courts law.

However, as Daily Tar Heel editors await the state supreme court’s decision to hear their appeal, they now know exactly what they are missing out on. Schwartz noted that the university, as required by the appeals court’s opinion, has been conforming to the open meetings law by faxing to the newspaper notices, including the time and place, of Honor Court proceedings.

“This is the first time that they’ve recognized they are subject to the open meetings law,” said Schwartz. The ruling that bodies such as the student court are covered by the open meetings law could be used to open other proceedings where the Buckley Amendment exemption does not apply at UNC and on other public campuses in the state.


reports, Spring 1998