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N.C. Open Government Coalition Spearheads UNC Public Records Project

Journalist Charles Kuralt famously called the University of North Carolina the “University of the People.” In a similar spirit, North Carolina law affirms that records of public business at the state’s public colleges and universities are “the property of the people.”

A new project led by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition aims to use state access laws to educate the public about the inner workings of UNC’s public records system and to spur collaboration among journalists covering the state’s flagship university.

In partnership with a coalition of journalists, professors, and nonprofit organizations, the NC Open Government Coalition filed eight public records requests with UNC on Friday seeking records related to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s hiring as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, and the author and creator of the 1619 Project. Recent reporting has raised questions about politically motivated interference with the UNC faculty’s recommendation to grant Hannah-Jones a tenured faculty position.   

The new public records requests lay the foundation for an ongoing collaborative journalism and freedom of information project. The NC Open Government Coalition and the NC Local News Workshop, both housed at Elon University, will host a series of workshops to help journalists share and edit public records requests, analyze documents, and collaborate on coverage of university governance.

“We hope not only that these requests will help inform the public understanding of this particular case, but also help reporters and others understand UNC’s policies and procedures for handling all public record requests in general,” said Ryan Thornburg, an associate professor of journalism in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. “This is a great real-world example of the kind of thing we teach our students every day.”

Members of the public can view the requests and follow UNC’s responses on the freedom of information website MuckRock.

UNC was embroiled in two high-profile lawsuits last year that raised government transparency issues. In February 2020, the Daily Tar Heel, an independent, student-led newspaper, favorably settled a lawsuit alleging that the UNC Board of Governors violated open meeting laws when it secretly agreed to transfer “Silent Sam,” a Confederate monument that recently stood on UNC’s campus, to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and pay $2.5 million toward the monument’s preservation.

In August 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Daily Tar Heel in a public records case that required UNC to disclose records of honor court cases stemming from sexual assaults on campus. The university had argued that the records were confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

“Controversies are often perfect opportunities for public education,” said Brooks Fuller, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition. “What’s happened at UNC in recent months has captured the attention of journalists, educators, and politicians from all over the country. What better way to seize on a teachable moment about the public records laws than putting them to the test around such a newsworthy issue?”

For inquiries, please contact:

Brooks Fuller, Director, NC Open Government Coalition, Asst. Professor, Elon School of Communications, bfuller7@elon.edu

Ryan Thornburg, Assoc. Professor, UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism, ryan.thornburg@unc.edu

Tori Ekstrand, Assoc. Professor, UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism, torismit@email.unc.edu

Erin Siegal McIntyre, Asst. Professor, UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism, esm@unc.edu

Shannan Bowen, Executive Director, NC Local News Workshop, sbowen5@elon.edu

Photo credit: “Old Well” by yeungb, licensed under CC BY 2.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

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