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Public Records, Public University and Sexual Assault – Which Laws Hold Sway?

By S. Dean Michaux, JD

A few years ago, when our state’s leading public university was hit with a public records request regarding a campus sexual assault, the school’s response led to a Constitutional standoff. The United States is a republic where the states have a great deal of autonomy, but what happens when a state institution seems to violate federal law?

DTH Media Corp. v. Folt, 816 S.E. 2d 519 (N.C. App 2018).

Facts: This is a Court of Appeals case reviewing the North Carolina Public Records Act and the release of student disciplinary records.

Plaintiffs sent a public records request to Defendant, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), dated September 30, 2016. The request sought “copies of all public records made or received by UNC-CH in connection with a person having been found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser included sexual misconduct by UNC-CH’s Honor Court, the Committee on Student Conduct, or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.” Defendant denied the records request. The trial court in this case held that The Public Records Act does not compel the release of student records “where otherwise specifically provided by law.” The trial court granted Plaintiff’s request related to UNC-CH employees. Plaintiffs appealed.

Issue: Whether UNC-CH is required to comply with The Public Records Act to release sexual assault records.

Answer to the Issue: Yes, The Public Records Act requires UNC-CH, a public agency, to release student disciplinary records of sexual assault.

Summary of rationale: North Carolina’s Public Records Act, N.C. Gen Stat. §§ 132-1 to -11 (2017) states “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at a minimal cost[.]” The North Carolina Court of Appeals held in Jackson v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth., 768 S.E. 2d 23, 24 (N.C. App. 2014), “the purpose of the Public Records Act is to grant liberal access to documents that meet the general definition of ‘public records’.”

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(a) defines “public records” to include “all . . . . material regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.” This Court held that public access to all public records in an agency’s possession is permitted “unless either the agency or the record is specifically exempted from the statute’s mandate.” Times-News Publ’g Co. v. State of N.C. 476 S.E.2d, 450, 452 (N.C. App. 1997). These “Exceptions and exemptions to the Public Records Act must be construed narrowly.” Carter-Hubbard Publ’g. Co., Inc. v. WRMC Hosp. Operating Corp., 633 S.E.2d 682, 684 (N.C. App. 2006).

Neither party contests the trial court decision that the student disciplinary records at UNC-CH are “public records” under the Public Records Act. The parties did not dispute that UNC-CH is a public agency of North Carolina and subject to The Public Records Act.

UNC-CH and many other universities receiving federal monies are subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is beyond the scope of this discussion however, the Court of Appeals recognized that student disciplinary records are “educational records” for purposes of FERPA. DTH Publ’g Corp. v. UNC-Chapel Hill, 496 S.E.2d 8, 13 (N.C. App. 1998).

When there are Federal and State laws on the same subject, the court must determine whether there is a conflict between State and Federal law. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States provides that “the laws of the United States, the Constitution and treaties “shall be the supreme Law of the land.” U.S. Const. Art. VI, cl 2.A review of preemption begins the analysis with “a presumption against federal preemption.” State ex rel. Utilities Comm’n v. Carolina Power & Light Co. 614 S.E.2d281, 287 (N.C. 2005). The Court had to evaluate the legislative intent of lawmakers in Lenox, Inc., v. Tolson, 548 S.E.2d 284, 290 (N.C. 2001). This evaluation is performed by reading the “plain language of the statute . . . , the spirit of the act, and what the act seeks to accomplish.” Coastal Ready-Mix Concrete Co., v. Bd. of Comm’rs, 265 S.E.2d 379, 385 (N.C. 1980).

The Court held that no conflict existed between FERPA and The Public Records Act for UNC-CH to release the public records requested by the Plaintiff. The Court found UNC-CH to be administrators of a public agency and are required to comply with Plaintiff’s request to release the public records under The Public Records Act.

The Court held that the plain language of FERPA does not manifest the congressional intent to occupy the field of public educational records to an extent that FERPA would pre-empt state public records law. The Court further found that UNC-CH could comply with both FERPA and The Public Records Act without violating FERPA.