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Evidence in sexual harassment case will not be sealed

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Evidence in sexual harassment case will not be sealed

  • A federal judge rejected a request by a university to seal evidence in case concerning harassment in UNC women’s soccer team.

Nov. 9, 2004 — A federal judge has denied a request by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to seal evidence in a sexual harassment and invasion of privacy suit.

U.S. District Judge N. Carlton Tilley Jr. ruled that he could find no reason to support sealing the evidence, which includes the university registrar’s affidavit and depositions.

“Denial of public access to documents filed in connection with summary judgment motion must be necessitated by compelling government interest and narrowly tailored to serve that interest,” Tilley wrote in an Oct. 27 opinion.

The case began in 1998 when Melissa Jennings sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jennings’ former soccer coach Anson Dorrance and others, claiming she was sexually harassed as a member of the university women’s varsity soccer team. In April, the university asked the court to seal all evidence in the case.

The defendants argued that depositions should be sealed because they contained “alleged comments made to, by or about female college students other than Jennings and former plaintiff, Debbie Keller, about their private lives or bodies” and that those students’ identities are not relevant to the case. The defendants also argued that the comments could be embarrassing to other former students if made a part of the record.

Jennings took no position regarding the motion to seal.

Tilley ruled that in order to seal the documents, the court would have had to show that doing so would serve “an important government interest” and “that there is no less restrictive way to serve that interest.”

“The public has a right of access to judicial proceedings that stems from two sources: the common law and the First Amendment,” he wrote.

The university argued that some of the evidence should be sealed under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits federally funded institutions that receive federal funding from releasing a student’s education records without written parental consent. But, the judge ruled, the law does not apply when a student initiates legal action against the institution.

Tilley granted summary judgment last month for the defendants in the harassment lawsuit filed against Dorrance, UNC and other university and athletics department officials, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported. The case had been set to go to trial Monday in U.S. District Court in Greensboro.

(Jennings v. University of North Carolina) CB

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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