Students educational records just became much less private, at least at state universities.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently appealed a decision of the state supreme court all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The North Carolina ruling required UNC to release disciplinary records of students who violated university policies related to sexual assault. Now the university has lost. The Supreme Court ultimately denied its appeal.
The case has been working its way through the court system for the better part of a year. In May 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that UNC would have to release the records.
The lawsuit was initially filed by the Daily Tar Heel (the school’s student newspaper) and Capitol Broadcasting Co. These organizations filed a North Carolina Public Records Act request in Fall 2016, seeking information about sexual assaults at UNC.
The university denied the request, arguing the records were subject to federal privacy protections under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Over the ensuing years, the university maintained that this federal statute gave them the discretion to preserve confidentiality and deny the freedom of information request. However, the state court disagreed, stating in its decision that university officials did not have that discretion and that state law required the university to release the records.
The university appealed, but the Supreme Court has now denied the appeal. This paves the way for public release of requested records about students at North Carolina public universities who have become involved in sexual assault allegations or been victimized by sexual assault.
This may have far-reaching and unintended consequences. The decision will force schools like UNC to disclose records of any disciplinary hearings related to campus sexual assault. There could be scenarios in which a person found responsible for committing assault or a person who was an alleged victim want to maintain their privacy and in fact rely on the university’s promises of confidentiality. Yet, their records may now be accessed, at least in North Carolina, by anyone who submits a public records request.
The state court essentially ruled that the North Carolina Public Records Act preempts the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, although ordinarily federal law preempts state law.
Now, any person who requests information about these records can get access, even if the students involved relied on the federal law, and even if a school policy expressly requires confidentiality. For example, many alleged victims come forward in the expectation that their privacy will be carefully guarded.
This is just one such decision in an increasing trend among states to place the primacy of open access to information above student privacy. Victims’ rights advocates have long advocated that accused students should not be allowed to remain confidential. This decision shows that they might be careful about what they wish for. The North Carolina law potentially exposes the student records of alleged victims and the accused alike.
This decision, and others like it, could open students to potential risks, not only of loss of privacy but also of potential reputational harm.
For more information about current legal trends in academia and how you can take legal action to uphold rights to privacy, contact an experienced attorney at Allen Law.