Records Krakauer Seeks Face New Court Review

     HELENA, Mont. (CN) — A prolific author investigating sexual-assault claims that scorched the University of Montana in Missoula has stumbled in his state Supreme Court bid for records access.
     Jon Krakauer, author of “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” filed suit against the state nearly a year after a jury acquitted former student quarterback Jordon Johnson of rape charges in 2013.
     Krakauer at the time had been researching the school’s handling of sexual-misconduct cases for a book. He came across a federal case by an anonymous student against the University of Montana, and believed that the case involved Johnson.
     The records Krakauer sought in particular concerned the verdict by the school’s own court that found Johnson guilty of rape and ordered him expelled.
     Though the university’s higher education commissioner refused to acknowledge the existence of such records, a judge for the Lewis and Clark County District Court ordered the records released with identifying information redacted.
     While the commissioner appealed, Krakauer published his book, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” in 2015. He also won attorneys’ fees that year. The book has since been published.
     Putting Krakauer’s relief on ice Monday, however, the Montana Supreme Court said the trial judge must review the records in question first to ensure the privacy of all involved, including the student athlete, the alleged victim, any witnesses and the student members of the University Court.
     The court found it less than magnanimous of Krakauer to agree to redacted records.
     “Obviously, records provided in response to a request naming a particular student will be about that student, whether redacted or not, and thus, there is more of machination than of cooperation in Krakauer’s offer, repeated at oral argument, to accept redacted records in response to his request,” the opinion states.
     “Consequently, on remand, the District Court must consider whether the futility of redaction affects the privacy analysis and the ultimate determination about what records can be released, if any,” the ruling continues.
     Justice Jim Rice wrote the 25-page lead opinion, with six justices concurring.
     Rice emphasized that a decision in Krakauer’s favor here will not bind future courts to release similar documents without first reviewing the facts.
     “A court order for release entered in one case does not require MUS to commence systematically releasing student records,” Rice wrote. “Each case turns on its individual facts and circumstances, assessed and weighed through the balancing test.”
     Judge Laurie McKinnon, the lone dissenter, emphasized a provision of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that lets universities disclose the final results of disciplinary proceedings against “only if the university determines that the student violated the university’s rules or policies with respect to the offense.”
     “The commissioner has stated on several occasions that this provision is inapplicable,” McKinnon wrote.
     She added that “the laws protecting a student’s education records are neither limited nor lessened because a student has been charged with a criminal offense or is being scrutinized by the media.”
     Krakauer’s lawyer, Peter Michael Meloy, and his media contact have not returned a phone calls and emails seeking comment.
     The contact number listed on the Montana Attorney General’s website was not in service when reached Thursday morning.
     The University of Montana had expelled Johnson after its own investigation into the case, but kept that decision on hold pending trial. Johnson was reinstated to the Grizzlies football team in March 2013. After the student accused the school in court of mishandling his investigation, the Missoulian says Johnson reached a $245,000 settlement earlier this year.
     Pseudonyms shield Johnson’s name in the court opinion, but references to the student as a quarterback in a highly publicized case make his role in the case unmistakable.

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