Judge: Phone numbers, parking tickets of UNC athletes not covered by FERPA

NORTH CAROLINA — The phone records of university athletic department officials and parking tickets given to student athletes are not protected from disclosure by federal privacy law, a state court judge ruled Tuesday.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill withheld the documents after they were requested by several news organizations, including the student-run Daily Tar Heel. UNC cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a student privacy law that allows the federal government to remove funding from schools that release private education records.

“FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view,” Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning, Jr. wrote in a memo to the parties announcing his decision.

Manning did rule that the names and salaries of student tutors hired for athletes are protected from disclosure. The records of students employed by the university whose jobs are contingent on their student status are “education records,” the judge held. The records of tutors who are not students, however, are not protected.

Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, said he was thrilled with Manning’s decision.

“Anything that a judge does anywhere to limit the reach of FERPA and narrow the definition of an education record is fine with me,” Schwartz said.

The university will have 30 days to do so after the judge issues a formal written order.

In a statement, UNC chancellor Holden Thorp said the university was pleased with the decision on the tutor information but disappointed with his ruling on the other records.

“This has far-reaching implications for all of our students and their records that we believe federal law protects,” Thorp said in the news release. “When the judge’s instructions are finalized in an order, the University will review the ruling and evaluate its options for appeal.”

The lawsuit stemmed from an NCAA probe into UNC’s football program last September amid allegations of improper benefits given to student athletes by sports agents. The university later launched an internal investigation into possible academic dishonesty involving the tutors.

One major point yet to be determined is the release of the records of that internal investigation. The media outlets and the university were waiting on today’s decision before making arguments about the investigation records.

“We're going to request more stuff,” Schwartz said. “We will continue to test the limits of what the university will try and hide from view under this federal law that didn't intend any of this stuff to be hidden from view.”

The other media outlets bringing suit were the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, News 14 Carolina, WTVD Television, The Associated Press, and Media General Operations.

The lawsuit named UNC football coach Butch Davis, athletics director Dick Baddour, university chancellor Holden Thorpe and Jeff McCracken, head of the university’s public safety department as defendants.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the decision is part of a recent trend in courts’ interpretations of FERPA.

“I think this is just the latest in a series of indications from the courts that FERPA is to be applied in a common sense manner that recognizes the importance of disclosure and transparency,” LoMonte said. “Court after court has told schools that FERPA is not to be applied in an absurd way to conceal information that is not educational and this is yet another affirmation that FERPA can’t be abused to conceal newsworthy and non-confidential information.”

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