Media Lawsuit Settled; UNC to Release NCAA Interview Transcripts

Johannes Simon

Media outlets prevail in a lawsuit that is less about actual information and more about a turf war. Bombshells are unlikely - remember the 216 phone records?

UNC and a coalition of media outlets that include the Daily Tar Heel and the News and Observer have settled a lawsuit filed over the release of information regarding the NCAA investigation into the Carolina football program. As a condition of the settlement, UNC will release unredacted transcripts of interviews conducted as a course of the investigation that do not relate to academics and will pay $45,000 in legal fees incurred by the media. UNC is scheduled to release the transcripts on Friday.

While ABCers will jump on any chance to yell "UNC-CHeat", this battle is less about actual information and more about principle. UNC, like many universities, seeks to control what information is disseminated about the school and its students; conversely, the media wants as much unfettered access as possible to exactly the kind of information the schools seek to restrict.

UNC has been, uh, liberal in its application of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and has sought to shield much of the information generated by the NCAA investigation under the FERPA umbrella. And, to be fair, it is a pretty far-reaching law that has potentially significant penalties for violations. UNC is also in a situation where they have to answer to the NCAA, which also treats investigations like state secrets. The media, for their part, is doing what they think they are supposed to do, which is use any and every means available to conduct their own investigation and reporting. Of course the media wants to be able to write the narrative rather than report on what the NCAA concludes, but otherwise they don't like to be told what they can and cannot have access to, especially when one of the involved parties is a state university subject to open records laws.

The end result of all this is likely to be much ado about nothing, at least as it relates to the NCAA situation. While the records the media receives are to be unredacted as it relates to non-academic misconduct, the NCAA has already been down this road and reviewed these transcripts and assigned penalites. I will be surprised if there are any nuggets yet to be harvested from these transcripts that are not already known. Like Al Capone's vault or the 216 phone records (which T.H. brilliantly referred to as the "white whale"), there won't be anything there. Meanwhile the new shiny object in the room relates to academics, and Judge Howard Manning has ruled information relating to academic misconduct can continue to be withheld.

Ultimately, this is simply about the media establishing precedent for future public records cases against state government entities and not so much about investigative reporting. In the end, however, UNC was able to run out the clock on both the 216 records and these interview transcripts to the point they are an afterthought to the current situation.

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