Another dead end in newspaper’s quest to open football player’s lawsuit to the public

OKLAHOMA — As former Oklahoma State University running back Vernand Morency pumped iron in Miami in preparation for the April 23 NFL Draft, his counsel and lawyers representing the OSU student newspaper failed to reach a compromise during a Feb. 22 settlement conference to determine if documents Morency filed in a civil suit against the university will be released.

Bob Nelon, the attorney representing the Daily O’Collegian, said Morency’s counsel indicated they want to prevent any information in the sealed documents from damaging Morency’s chances in the draft.

“I think I can say that timing is a factor in how Morency approaches things and it’s a factor in how we approach things,” Nelon said. “The newsworthiness of the information diminishes with time.”

Morency’s attorney, Stephen Jones, denied that the NFL draft has any influence over the case.

“To be frank with you, I don’t know what [Nelon’s] talking about,” Jones said. “That may be Bob’s thinking but it’s not mine.”

Morency sued OSU in 2003 to maintain his athletic eligibility after the university suspended him from the football team. A trial court dismissed his case in September 2004 and sealed the documents Morency filed in the lawsuit, which contain the names and information about other OSU students, including an alleged sexual assault victim. Morency was brought before OSU’s judicial board as the alleged perpetrator of that assault, but no criminal charges were ever filed.

At the Daily O’Collegian’s behest, the district court ordered the documents unsealed–with the names and information of the other students removed–on Jan. 6. After Morency appealed this decision, both parties met with a settlement conference judge in an attempt to reach a compromise. Morency did not return to OSU to complete his junior year.

The case will go on file with the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, which will decide to review it or assign it to a court of civil appeals.

The newspaper agreed to the redactions because the students named in Morency’s documents were not parties in the original lawsuit. Nelon said the university is concerned about lawsuits from the students whose information may become part of public record if the documents are unsealed.

Jones objects to the redactions.

“It’s a simple matter,” he said. “The reason you seal and make matters confidential is to protect the integrity of the process. If you’re going to unseal some of [the documents] you should unseal all of them. Allegedly the press is interested in this as the public’s right to know. If the public has a right to know, they have a right to know 100 percent.”

While a court order prevents the parties from disclosing settlement conference discussions, Nelon said the conference was “fruitful.”

“There are some ideas floating around that might make a settlement possible,” he said. “We’ve agreed to continue to talk.”

Jones said he does not anticipate a settlement.

There are no more conferences scheduled, but the parties can reach an agreement without the court’s involvement, Nelon said.

Appeals briefings may not start for four months if both parties use all the time allotted to organize the case. The appeals court might take several more months to reach a decision, Nelon said.

Jared Janes, editor in chief of the O’Collegian, and Sean Hill, a senior editor who covered Morency’s original lawsuit, said they are preparing younger reporters to cover the case in the future.

“We had a lot invested in the story so it’s disappointing if we don’t get access to the information soon,” Janes said. “Sean graduates in May, so there’s the concern there that he won’t have the story for himself.”

Janes described Morency as “extremely well-known and extremely popular” on campus, and Hill echoed that students’ interest in the case will not wane with time.

“It would be of interest to the student body for the same reasons it’s of interest to the students who work at the newspaper–the fact that it’s a sealed court case and we don’t know why,” Hill said. “We don’t know what’s in there.”

–By Kate Campbell

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