Judge Sides With UNC in N&O Records Suit

A Wake County judge on Monday denied The News & Observer access to a record the newspaper had sought as part of its coverage of Carolina’s nearly four-year-long academic fraud case.

The N&O sued the University in January after UNC declined to provide a copy of a spreadsheet showing detailed information about athletes who had enrolled in courses in the former department of African and Afro-American studies that were found to be fraudulent. The newspaper requested a redacted version, devoid of any personal information that could reveal the identity of individual students but still would enable reporters to glean how many athletes in a particular sport enrolled during a particular semester in what have come to be known as “paper” classes involving independent study and a term paper but absent faculty lecturers.

Superior Court Judge George B. Collins Jr. ’85 (JD) sided with the University, ruling that releasing the spreadsheet even in its redacted form could lead to the identification of students and therefore would violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“In reviewing [the spreadsheet], together with nothing other than the UNC athletics web site, the Court was able to determine with absolute certainty the identity of one of the students and was able to narrow one of the other students down to four possibilities,” Collins wrote in his decision. “Having done this, the Court felt no need to continue its examination. This process took exactly fifty minutes.”

The version of the spreadsheet sought by The N&O would have included only a field for the athlete’s sport, the course title and the semester in which he or she was registered for the class. The information, the newspaper reported, would have provided a better understanding of the scandal’s origin.

“We’re disappointed in the judge’s decision,” N&O Executive Editor John Drescher ’83 was quoted in the newspaper as saying. “We are not interested in identifying individual athletes. UNC has released similar data for a more recent time period. We hope the university will release the data going back to 1997 in a manner that protects athletes’ privacy.”

Joel Curran ’86, UNC’s vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said in a statement: “The University is pleased with Judge Collins’ ruling to uphold the privacy rights of students. Protecting these rights is one of the most important responsibilities colleges and universities have, and we are grateful for the court’s decision.”

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