EDITORIAL: NC Court of Appeals decision a step forward for student journalism

The purpose of journalism is, above anything else, to inform people. Further, journalism is built upon a foundation of transparency, accuracy and accountability — a foundation which is being increasingly tested by the sociopolitical forces of the world. As student journalists, our primary responsibility is to inform the student body on matters that impact student safety and well-being at large. In order to enact this mission, it is both necessary and vital to hold universities responsible for matters such as these.

On April 17, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that UNC-Chapel Hill must release the names of people found responsible for sexual assault, rape or any forms of sexual misconduct through the university’s honor court, the Committee on Student Conduct or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office.

This ruling acts as a win for student journalism across the state, as it allows for greater transparency within university administrations which, in turn, increases student safety and puts the rights of survivors and the general student body alike over the rights of people who have been found responsible of a criminal offense by standard university procedures.

Moreover, the decision will ultimately allow for greater research into criminal offenses committed by students and university employees, which will in turn enable student publications to provide the student body with the information they deserve. Having access to this information increases greater student awareness of those who have been found responsible of a criminal offense by university procedures, which in turn further allows students to make informed decisions regarding their safety.

The ruling acts in contrast to a ruling issued last month from a court session at North Carolina Central University, in which the university’s attorneys argued against the release of this information, claiming it would violate federal laws.

When the Daily Tar Heel originally issued a public information request in September 2016 for records revealing the names of people found responsible for rape, sexual assault and related offenses by the school’s honor court or other internal offices, the university declined to share the records. UNC-CH claimed the information was protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and therefore was not to be made public.

While privacy is no doubt an important factor to consider, releasing this information affects far more than the person found responsible for such crimes. It affects the many survivors of rape, sexual assault and related crimes by holding the accused accountable, and also affects the majority of students who are unaware of who has committed these crimes at their university.

In response to the opposition, the Daily Tar Heel, an independent publication, accompanied by the Capital Broadcasting Company, the Charlotte Observer Publishing Company and the Durham Herald Company, sued UNC-CH on the grounds that the information they were seeking is public record in accordance with Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes.

UNC-CH’s opposition to the release of the requested information was twofold. Attorneys argued that releasing the records would deter survivors and witnesses from coming forward for fear of having their names released, and would further endanger those alleged to have committed sexual assaults.

According to the ruling from the NC Court of Appeals, the names of survivors and witnesses can only be released with their explicit permission. The only names that can be released as public information are those of individuals who have been convicted of sexual misconduct or other crimes through UNC-CH’s Student Conduct.

Informing a student body about individuals who may threaten their safety on campus is an integral part of student journalism. This ruling in favor of the foundation of journalism allows us as journalists to further inform our readers, as well as hold the institutions around us accountable in ensuring the safety of their community.

Sexual assault is a heinous crime that is unfortunately all too prevalent on college campuses. The culture of secrecy, paired with a lack of accountability bred around sexual assault further deters students from coming forward as survivors or witnesses. This ruling is a step in the right direction for providing protection and safety for survivors of sexual assault, while also ensuring transparency in the processes in place to hold assaulters accountable for their actions.

This unsigned editorial is the opinion of the majority of Technician’s editorial board, and is the responsibility of the editor-in-chief.

Source Article