Open judicial hearings fight ends bittersweet
State Supreme Court refuses to hear newspaper; lower court ruling stands
NORTH CAROLINA — More than two years and $20,000 later, the newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received an answer it did not want to hear.
The state Supreme Court effectively ended The Daily Tar Heels’ lawsuit for access to campus judicial proceedings July 8 when the court denied the newspapers’ appeal.
“We’re all kind of bummed,” said Kevin Schwartz, director and general manager of The Daily Tar Heel. “We had prepared ourselves for the possibility, but it’s still stunning because other state Supreme Courts have tackled the topic.”
The North Carolina Court of Appeals held last February that undergraduate courts are subject to state sunshine laws. However, under an exemption provision to the state law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), commonly known as the Buckley Amendment, allows the university to close proceedings, the court said.
Although the university can close judicial proceedings, the sunshine laws changes the way the university handles it.
“We have to give notice through university news services,” said Margaret Barrett, associate dean of students and judicial programs officer. “It has affected it procedurally and logistically.”
The case began after two students stole around 1,500 copies of a conservative campus publication, Carolina Review. The Daily Tar Heel sued for access to the disciplinary hearings in the case.
While lists of student judicial cases are released by the UNC honor court, it contains little information about the proceedings.
The listing provided by the university dean of students and judicial programs officer included an entry stating two students were charged with “restraining freedom of speech of another student or group by removing publications.”
Both students were found not guilty.
Now the staff of the newspaper will never know how the UNC honor court reached that verdict.
“They’ll get to shred up records and throw out transcripts. We’ll never find out what transpired in the case with the theft of that publication,” Schwartz said. “We can’t understand why two students who admitted to stealing papers were found not guilty.”
Barrett declined to address the particular incident.
“I can’t really comment on an individual case,” said Barrett. “[But] in any case, it’s important that a court or hearing [committee] will have to review what was charged and determine if what happened violated university policy.”
Despite the cost and time put into the case, Schwartz said he has no regrets.
“Every independent newspaper should look at this issue on their campus. This is part of the role of the press — to get proceedings out in the open.”
Carolina Review, Fall 1998, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, North Carolina, reports, The Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill