UNC finally released records related to sexual assault on campus after a four-year lawsuit, The Daily Tar Heel reported Thursday. Fifteen students have been found in violation of the school’s sexual assault policy in that timespan, including former basketball player Jalek Felton.
The campus newspaper, along with WRAL, The Charlotte Observer, and The Durham Herald Sun, originally sued the university in state Supreme Court for failing to disclose the names, offenses, and disciplinary actions of students who violated the school’s sexual assault policy in 2016. The media outlets argued that the university’s failure to do so violated the state’s open records law since the university is a publicly-funded institution. At oral arguments in August 2019, the university countered that the records were protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
The Supreme Court handed down a 4-3 ruling in the case on May 1, saying that the disciplinary records were in fact public records.
“Being able to look at who’s perpetrating these crimes is going to be really important to our coverage, because that’s something we’ve been looking for for years,” Daily Tar Heel editor Anna Pogarcic said at the time. “Obviously, that will change the whole conversation.”
The celebrations were short-lived. The university gave itself until June 30 to release the disciplinary records but blew past the deadline by over a month. In between the court ruling and the June 30 deadline, two students filed a motion to have their names in the records changed to prevent “immediate and irreversible reputational and economic harms.”
It doesn’t look like that request was granted, at least for former UNC basketball player Jalek Felton. The highly-touted point guard arrived on campus for the Tar Heels’ 2017-18 season but was suspended by the university in January before the season was completed. A specific reason was not given at the time, but the recently-released documents now tie his dismissal to sexual misconduct on campus.
Even though the records are now public, UNC has said it wants the US Supreme Court to review the state court’s split ruling. A successful challenge by the university wouldn’t affect records that have already been released, like the sexual assault records that just dropped, but it could affect what records are released in down the road.
“As a practical matter, it wouldn’t change anything now,” Hugh Stevens, an attorney representing The Daily Tar Heel, told the paper. “But it would have huge ramifications for the future.”
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