State public records laws (PRLs) provide a powerful tool for promoting government transparency and accountability. However, because PRLs have such broad reach, those seeking to harass, intimidate, and spy can employ PRLs as a weapon. To mitigate deleterious uses of PRLs, legislatures include specific exemptions to protect more sensitive types of information from public view. Typical examples include records containing personally identifying information, law enforcement records for ongoing investigations, and confidential legal materials. A majority of states have also provided comprehensive protection for certain functions of public universities. In contrast, North Carolina provides no public record protection for its public universities.
Through specific examples, this Comment examines the consequences of a PRL that does not provide any exemptions for public universities. In Virginia, the state attorney general and a partisan organization used the Virginia PRL to harass a public university professor whose research they opposed. In Wisconsin, a political leader similarly harassed a professor who spoke out in opposition to the political party’s agenda. In New Jersey, a litigant used a PRL to “supplement” its discovery requests where the opposing party was represented by a public university legal clinic. In several of these cases, exemptions in the state PRLs provided the attacked parties with relief. While no similar examples have been publicly reported in North Carolina, the potential for abuse is manifest given the lack of exemptions in the North Carolina PRL.
This Comment advocates for crafting public university exemptions to the North Carolina PRL. After reviewing public university PRL exemptions in all 50 states, this Comment recommends adopting explicit exemptions for student educational records, academic exams, academic research and professor correspondence, and work product from legal clinics.