by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In a 4-3 ruling, the N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that UNC-Chapel Hill must turn over to media outlets records of sexual assault violations on campus.
The split ruling affirms an earlier unanimous decision from the state Court of Appeals. The student-run Daily Tar Heel newspaper had sued for access to the records, along with Capitol Broadcasting, the Charlotte Observer, and Durham Herald.
The news organizations argued that the state Public Records Act compelled university officials to supply the records. University leaders countered that federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, blocked release of the requested information.
Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Morgan concludes:
The University does not have discretion to withhold the information sought here,which is authorized by, and specified in, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as subject to release. Accordingly, as an agency of the state, UNC-CH must comply with the North Carolina Public Records Act and allow plaintiffs to have access to the name of the student, the violation committed, and any sanction imposed by the University on that student in response to plaintiffs’ records request.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and Justices Robin Hudson and Paul Newby joined Morgan in the majority. Justices Mark Davis, Sam Ervin IV, and Anita Earls dissented.
Writing for the three dissenting justices, Davis notes:
The majority’s analysis fundamentally misapplies the federal preemption doctrine.As discussed more fully below, the dispositive issue in this case is whether FERPA confers discretion upon universities regarding whether to release the category of records at issue. If FERPA does so, then the doctrine of preemption precludes states from mandating that universities exercise that discretion in a certain way. …
… [T]he only remaining question is whether a state law such as North Carolina’s Public Records Act can lawfully require that a university exercise its discretion in favor of disclosure. Under the doctrine of federal preemption, the answer is no. A university must be allowed to exercise its federally mandated discretion unimpeded by a state law that seeks to eliminate that discretion.