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Judge Rules UNC Must Turn Over Phone Records, Parking Tickets [UPDATED]

Wake County Superior Court judge Howard Manning, who seems to be frequently in the middle of significant education-related cases in North Carolina (e.g. Leandro, Wake year-round, low-performing high schools), has made official a ruling that UNC must turn over to a group of media outlets certain phone records and parking tickets sought in the ongoing NCAA football investigation.

UNC officials had claimed the phone records and parking ticket information are protected educational records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. Manning disagreed and said the university must turn the requested records over to media outlets that include the News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer, and The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper.

(As an aside, as someone who works in education, I can tell you the breadth of FERPA is stunning. Anyone who has run across HIPAA, the health information privacy cousin of FERPA, knows some of what this law is like. Carry on.)

Last month, Manning ruled that UNC had improperly withheld information regarding people employed as tutors in the athletic academic support program, but did not issue a final ruling on the parking tickets and phone records until Thursday. The university immediately announced it will seek a stay in the lawsuit and will appeal the judge's decision.

Critics, media types, and ABCers have accused UNC of obfuscation in releasing highly redacted phone records, particularly of former assistant coach John Blake, and in classifying parking tickets as "educational records". Those on the UNC side had pointed out that hundreds of hours have been spent complying with these requests and thousands of pages of documents have already been released. Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a statement that UNC should protect the privacy rights of all students "whether they’re on the football team, in the marching band or in a Chemistry 101 class."

"So this is really not about the football investigation," Thorp said. "If this ruling were to stand, it would put the privacy rights of all of our students at risk. “We have provided more than 23,000 pages of documents in response to the plaintiffs’ requests. That includes hundreds of pages of phone records in redacted form. We have even offered to provide the parking tickets with personally identifying information removed. We have done our best to comply with N.C. public records law and our federal obligation to protect student information at the same time.”

As a disclaimer, let me reiterate that it has always been the official position here at THF that the truth must be told as it relates to the football investigation and let the chips fall where they may. With that said, however, the media outlets in this case seem to be serving their own self interest, which is to drive readership, while veiling it in the name of public service.

The University of North Carolina is accountable to the people of North Carolina through its duly appointed Board of Governors of the UNC System and to the UNC Board of Trustees, as well as to the sanctioning body of intercollegiate athletics, which is the NCAA. By all accounts UNC has been fully cooperative with all of those parties. Media outlets often claim they are serving some higher purpose in bringing things to light for the public good while they are often hypocritical in their own dealings in doing whatever it takes to get the story.

Let us recall that our intrepid local media has frequently been scooped by national writers in a number of facets of the football unpleasantness, especially as it relates to Blake. The phone records request is their way of trying to find out who Blake and other coaches were talking to by having the phone calls released as public records, when it normally takes a subpoena to obtain this kind of information.

The same issue applies for the parking tickets. The media outlets clearly appear to be on a fishing mission here in hopes they can uncover something like was revealed at Ohio State. Supporters of the release of the parking tickets have claimed that they are not educational records and that when someone gets a traffic ticket, the information is publicly available (which is why lawyers are able to send solicitations to people who get traffic tickets).

But parking tickets are different - they are not issued to an individual, but to a vehicle. A record is then made of the registered owner of the vehicle and notice is sent to that person if the parking ticket is not paid. Information regarding the registered owners of vehicles is usually not available to the general public, but only to governmental agencies and law enforcement. By declaring this information as public record, Judge Manning has removed this inconvenient legal hurdle for the media. From this point forward, if someone in the media thinks Neon Boudreaux got a Lexus from a booster, all they have to do is stalk the car, wait for it to get a parking ticket, then file a public information request to find out to whom the car belongs.

Ultimately, what this boils down to is that the local media does not want to get scooped by the NCAA. They want to report on the infractions, not write about the infractions report. If UNC has been as cooperative with the NCAA as they claim, then all the information the media outlets seek has already been shared with the NCAA and will be reflected in their final ruling. But the NCAA heavily redacts (or anonymizes) the names and details in its reporting. Even in the famous USC report when the player in question was obviously Reggie Bush, the NCAA never referred to him by name. Newspapers don't play like that. They want to be able to report that "Marvin Austin took X benefit from person Y" or "John Blake called Gary Wichard about player Z," not regurgitate redacted details from an NCAA report.

Let's be clear: it is the media's job to investigate and report and it is Holden Thorp's job to lead, guide, direct, and even protect UNC through this unpleasantness. I understand the media's zeal in pursuing this story, and it would be even more important if UNC was somehow stonewalling the NCAA, but does not seem to be the case.

Still it seems petty for these media outlets to sue UNC to force the university to essentially give the media everything UNC has given the NCAA so they can print it before the NCAA has a chance to rule. At the end of the day, this is what all this is about, not some great quest for the public good. If I was a betting man, I would lay money that UNC will get its stay and the NCAA will issue its ruling before the appeal is decided.

[UPDATE] Friday's N&O article mentions an additional piece of the puzzle:

One issue in the suit has not been decided.

The media organizations are seeking all documents and records of any investigation conducted by the university related to any misconduct by any UNC-CH football coach, any UNC-CH player, any sports agent, any UNC-CH booster and any UNC-CH tutor. (emphasis added)

Lawyers have not argued their cases before Manning in regard to that request.

Media representatives argue that such records should be disclosed so the public can fully know what happened at a publicly funded institution.

"Until these documents are released and examined, there will be a cloud over the football investigation,"  (News & Observer Executive Editor John) Drescher said.

So in addition to the records previously requested, the media essentially wants UNC to turn over everything that has been given to the NCAA in order for the newspapers can "examine" it "so the public can fully know."

I'm sure John Drescher knows that the chances of receiving this information are much more slim as student discipline records are clearly protected by FERPA (as we learned during the honor court hearings) and North Carolina has some of the most stringent laws in the country as it relates to personnel matters.

But Drescher's comments only prove the point about the media's ultimate purpose in filing suit and requesting this information - they want to write the story and not rely on the NCAA, who will not name names.