UNC claims School of Government is a law enforcement agency to withhold public records

Updated: May. 24, 2017 at 3:24 PM EDT
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CHAPEL HILL, NC (WBTV) - The University of North Carolina has denied a public records request made by WBTV citing an exemption that only applies to law enforcement agencies.

WBTV requested records from Jeff Welty, a professor at the UNC School of Government, in mid-May. Welty responded to the request indicating that he would willingly produce responsive records.

"I need to run this by our public records point person," Welty said in an email response. "I am not aware of any basis for doing anything other than providing any responsive documents that I may have, but we have a process for such things that I need to follow."

A week later, the UNC Chapel Hill public records office reversed course and said it would not provide the records responsive to WBTV's request.

The university cited a provision of the North Carolina Public Records Act that allows certain records created and maintained by law enforcement agencies to be exempt from being made public.

"Under North Carolina General Statute 132-1.4 certain law enforcement records are not public records as defined by NCGS 132-1," the public records office said.

But Jonathan Jones, an attorney who specializes in public records law as director of the North Carolina Sunshine Center, said the university cannot withhold records under the investigative exemption because it is not a law enforcement agency.

"I think it's outrageous," Jones said after reviewing WBTV's initial request and the university's response. "The UNC School of Government is not a law enforcement agency and they're not subject to the exemption in the Public Records law."

The text of the law cited by the university in its refusal to produce records responsive to WBTV's request makes clear the exemption only applies to
law enforcement agencies.

"Records of criminal investigations conducted by public law enforcement agencies, records of criminal intelligence information compiled by public law enforcement agencies, and records of investigations conducted by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, are not public records as defined by G.S. 132-1," the statute reads.

Moreover, the statute defines a "public law enforcement agency" as "a municipal police department, a county police department, a sheriff's department, a company police agency commissioned by the Attorney General pursuant to G.S. 74E-1, et seq., and any State or local agency, force, department, or unit responsible for investigating, preventing, or solving violations of the law."

Jones, the attorney and public records expert, said neither Welty nor the UNC School of Government meet the definition of a public law enforcement agency.

"I don't think Jeff Welty is a sworn law enforcement officer. He's a great guy but he's not investigating a crime," Jones said.

A spokeswoman for UNC Chapel Hill declined to clarify why the university considers itself a public law enforcement agency in accordance with the North Carolina Public Records Act but did provided the following statement:

"Carolina takes our responsibility to adhere to the North Carolina public records law very seriously. North Carolina public records law is clear that criminal investigation records are exempt from the law. The University is prepared to provide any responsive records if they are determined not to be criminal investigative records."

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